How Cobb Elementary Transformed Me


Valeria Imendia, International Studies’18

I still remember receiving an email about a literacy internship opportunity during the fall semester of my junior year and thinking it would be a great chance for me to expand my experiences in education. As a student in the Dual Degree Program for Teacher Preparation, I decided to apply to be a literacy intern through Engage San Francisco but little did I know I would be embarking on an experience of a lifetime. I am now a senior, about to graduate this coming May, and I continue to learn so much about myself and my passion for teaching with every chance I get to walk the halls of Dr. William L. Cobb Elementary School.

From my very first day of the internship, I was met with nothing but kindness and support. My first impression of the school was more than I could have hoped for, and it continues to be a place of unique learning experiences for me. For one, every day at Cobb is different—whether it is because I have to work with new students and create activities for them on my own or because unexpected situations arise where I have to provide care for students. I first went in thinking of myself as a tutor for my students, but it was not long after I started my work there that I realized this job required a lot more than just academics. Every single student I have had the privilege to work with at this school has sparked so much passion for teaching within me, and I continue to think about them in everything I do as I pursue my teaching credential.

Alongside my students, my mentor at the school and my internship supervisor always go above and beyond to ensure that as interns we are being supported and guided in the best way possible. It has been thanks to their warmth and guidance that I have been able to feel like I have agency in my position as an intern. From day one, I have felt like I am a part of the school community and that is because I have been given the tools and the trust to bring my perspective into the work I do with my students. Hence, this program has been crucial in my journey as a future educator because it has shown me first-hand that there is a lot of work to be done in the classroom. It has likewise shown me in practice what my responsibility as a woman of color going into this profession looks like in order to ensure I am doing my best to advocate for our youth. My students have therefore opened up new possibilities within me and they have taken me by the hand and walked me through their life experiences and their passions, which is something that will be forever engraved in my heart. I am honored and humbled to walk the halls of Cobb and get hugs from students I have not even worked with yet and to get high-fives from the older kids who normally like to tell me they are “too cool” for doing reading activities with Miss Valeria. My students give me so much joy with all their unique ways of showing me love and affection, and I have come to understand that with this care also comes responsibility. I strive to honor these demonstrations of trust by making sure to always keep my students and their rich knowledge and individuality at the forefront of my teaching practices.


My time at Cobb has helped transform me in only the best way. I have been challenged by difficult situations; I have been put to the test as I have had to come up with solutions without much time to prepare, and I have most importantly been shown the most genuine and pure love from my students. Being at Cobb and experiencing the day-to-day routines and witnessing what my students go through both as students and as individuals with their own interests and stories has allowed me to step back and think about the privileges I hold in that space and also as I think about my own future classroom. My students have taught me to be humble and to understand that this work is in the service of every single person in my classroom, particularly of those whose voices have historically been left out. My students—all of whom are not older than eleven—have taught me far more than I could hope to learn from a textbook. I am grateful to have wonderful teachers who push my thinking and hold me to high standards, yet it is my students at Cobb who push me even further and keep me accountable in everything I do.

I continue to be grateful for every single day that I get to be a part of this literacy program because it means I am being challenged to question the ways I engage with this work in education. Regardless of the official expectations of my position or of any titles, this work goes beyond what can be seen as purely academic at a surface level. This opportunity has allowed me to immerse myself in hands-on experiences in teaching and given me a new sense of purpose. I have wanted to go into the teaching profession because I believe our youth has invaluable lessons to teach us and because they deserve to know that their voices matter. I know that this work is difficult, but we owe it to our students to show up for them and allow them to be visible in every way that makes them who they are in order to disrupt practices that have silenced much of our youth—particularly our youth of color— for far too long. This internship has therefore allowed me to work on the skills that make this ideal a reality and I am humbled to be able to experience this with the wonderful mentors I have gained and the students that make this journey worthwhile. This journey is a constant learning experience and I am grateful I got that email and decided to apply all those months ago because now I have a new community that has given me the best gifts: a renewed sense of purpose and a greater love for teaching.



Reviewing 15 Years


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One month ago we celebrated our 15th anniversary. As part of the festivities, we created a photo collection of some of our most memorable moments over the years. The process allowed us to reflect on how many students, faculty, community partners and staff have contributed to our success. The photos capture moments ranging from our students traveling to Bolivia and India with the Privett Global Service-Learning program, interning at senate offices with USF in D.C., to protesting at the Women’s March in multiple cities, to inviting some of the most influential leaders of the day. The slideshow highlights our commitment to preparing students for lives of ethical public service and the common good. Thanks to all of our generous sponsors who make our work possible!


Planting Seeds of Change Together

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Melissa Tang, Director of Programs, CommunityGrows

As San Francisco is dealing with the consequences of unequal economic growth and gentrification, there is a greater need for communities to band together in solidarity.  

I work for CommunityGrows, a small grassroots youth development organization grown out of the needs of residents from the Western Addition.  Twenty-three years ago, residents came together to reclaim green spaces in the Western Addition. CommunityGrows cultivates gardens with over 1,300 youth each year in low-income diverse communities.  


What I love about working for CommunityGrows is our emphasis on collaboration and building bridges with partners.  Community development takes time, presence, persistence, active listening and patience.  Being a small organization, we understand we need to depend on the strengths on our partners in order to achieve our overall mission. It’s through the Mo’ Magic Collaborative that organizations create and develop programming that address the needs of children, youth and their families in the Fillmore District and Western Addition communities.

At the Mo’ Magic meetings, we developed long term relationship and I know I can ask McCarthy Center staff for resources or to collaborate on community-wide projects. McCarthy Center staff attends all our community meetings and listens to what partners need.  Here’s just a few ways how our impact is amplified through our partnership with McCarthy Center:

  • Environmental Studies students and staff worked with us to maintain a garden at New Liberation Church and to develop workshops for our teen program.    
  • We partnered on joint community events like the Mind, Body and Soul health pop-ups, where we led a healthy cooking demo and gave away veggies from our gardens to residents we normally wouldn’t reach.   
  • We are recipients of USF’s Retired Technology program!  For a the last two years, we were able to provide a workstation for each staff member and dedicated our funding towards programming.



During my time as a graduate student at USF (Masters of Nonprofit Administration, ‘16), I heard USF’s motto: Change the world from here.  Through these partnerships, not only are students learning how to change the world in the neighborhood that surrounds the campus but they engage them in real problems that affect real people, people who happen to live directly next to the campus.  There are a lot of dedicated folks who are doing great work to make changes in the Western Addition but they can’t do it alone. USF partnerships will strengthen the work of these organizations and provide education to students that a book can’t teach you.  So when USF asks students to change the world from here, the change is not on USF’s campus, but right here in the neighborhood—in the Western Addition.     


Building Community Through Engage SF

For several years now, my Engage San Francisco colleagues and I have taken students, staff, faculty, supporters, and administrators on walks in the Western Addition. We intentionally don’t call them tours, as this is the neighborhood we work with, and community partners and community members join us on the walks. Most importantly, the word ‘tour’ rings of voyeurism and doesn’t challenge the ethical implications of looking at a community rather than working with a community.  We walk seeking connection and knowledge. Inevitably we see the things that we plan, and also inevitably something happens that is unplanned, which is part of the magic of being with community.


We walk to learn about the history of the Western Addition, the Fillmore, Japantown, San Francisco, and the United States. We learn about and discuss how policies contribute to systematic injustices that impact residents in the Western Addition, particularly residents who struggle to make ends meet. We learn from and with community members and community partners and we discuss  connections between USF and the Western Addition. These walks are customized for the participants and they are intentional in their design. The community partners who join us before, during, or after the walks vary because we don’t want to take folks for granted or overburden our partners with the work of teaching USF-ers how to enter and exit community respectfully. A few of the partners who have joined us include: African American Art & Culture ComplexCommunity GrowsCollective ImpactAfrican American Shakespeare CompanyAfroSolo and the SuccessCenterSF.

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The guidance I provide folks on the walk typically includes an overview of where we will go and who we will visit with along with some historical context about redevelopment and outmigration, but the most important instructions I give are: 1) Stay curious. 2) Pay Attention. 3) Examine your assumptions. This is because flexibility is required to work with community, and curiosity is needed to learn as opportunities emerge. Some examples of how the magic of community knowledge appears (because despite our best attempts, we are always obviously walking through community as a majority group of strangers) include:

The time we were walking down Fillmore with Professor Stephanie Sears, Ms. Altheda Carrie,  Ms. Lynette White and the Esther Madriz Diversity Scholars and a man stopped us and said,

“If you are here to learn, one thing you need to know is that we (African Americans) all came here during the war (WWII) to build ships and then they tore our homes down. We worked here for the war and then there was no where to live. If you learn anything today, that needs to be the one thing you understand.”

The time we ran into Bicycle Bob at every turn, totaling four unplanned meetings during the course of a 2-hour walk. He was flyer-ing for an upcoming Sunday Streets event and we continued to cross paths, making the neighborhood seem small and familiar.

The time that we visited the garden at Rosa Parks elementary and Melissa Tang of

IMG_20170906_143241107_HDR (1)Community Grows offered the opportunity to hold one of the chickens from their chicken coop.

The time we saw Rico Hamilton of Street Violence Intervention Project (SVIP) outside McDonalds and he knew numerous USF-ers on the walk and generously stopped to talk with all of us about the ways his work has intersected with USF.

The first walk I went on was led by Rachel Brahinsky, Assistant Professor and Director of our Masters in Urban and Public Affairs. We ran into Reverend Al Townsend, who has been a community leader and activist for decades. Rachel knew him from interviews she had conducted with him for research and writing. He shared with Rachel’s graduate students a bit about his experience with community organizing that dates back to his days as a student at SFSU, and he joked that if he had picked a different path, perhaps he would have become as famous as his classmate, Danny Glover.

Many, many years ago a friend taught me that stories from our lives are gifts we have to give. So we take the walks to learn about the community organizations that host and teach our students, we take these walks to make history real and see the ongoing impacts of redevelopment and reflect on what is no longer there. We take walks to see the outcomes of our partnerships with the Western Addition. We also take these walks to hear stories and receive the gifts that the community has to offer. For this we are grateful because without the trust and teachings of community members we would not be able to do this work.   — Karin Cotterman, Director of Engage San Francisco


Support ESF here. Visit the USF Western Addition resource page here.

Releasing our 2017 Annual Report

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Each year the Center strives to honor the legacy of Leo T. McCarthy through programs and scholarship that promote public service and the common good. This includes undergraduate community-engagement learning, faculty and university-wide development, graduate engagement, and community partnerships at both the local and global level. We are excited to share our 2017 annual report in advance of our 15th anniversary celebration on November 9th.

Some of this year’s highlighted achievements include:

  • 19 co-sponsored events
  • 11 advocates for community engagement placements
  • 3,000 service-learners
  • 541 faculty development hours
  • 10 global sustainable development projects
  • 8,400 graduate intern hours
  • 200% increase in public service and community engagement minors
  • 166 local community partners
  • 624 LTMC alumni

We thank all of you for your continued support and look forward to another great year!

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Beginning a Literacy Partnership with Dr. William L. Cobb Elementary School

Dr. Mary Murray Autry

Dr. Mary Murray Autry, Associate Director
Engage San Francisco Literacy Programs


When first visiting Dr. William L. Cobb Elementary School (Cobb) in October 2016, with hopes of beginning a literacy partnership, I vividly remember entering the office area and being pleasantly surprised to see a wall covered with banners. These were not just any banners but banners representing various universities throughout the United States and graduates from this very elementary school. I had no trouble identifying the principal’s office door that had been labeled with the name of his alma mater. The banners clearly sent a message to me about the mission of the school and the value of education. Because I really did not know what to expect from this meeting, I began with, “The University of San Francisco, through its Engage San Francisco initiative within the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good would like to partner with you in creating a literacy program.”

We have made significant strides since our initial meeting. The literacy program began as a pilot with a shared vision to improve reading proficiency and support K-5 students to reach grade-level proficiency. We also agreed to place university students as volunteers in a first-second grade combination class and a third-fourth grade combination classroom to provide relevant literacy experiences for classroom students.

One freshman and four juniors comprise the pilot of cohorts and began as interns working with elementary students and our community partners in spring 2017. These interns are undergraduate candidates in the Dual Degree in Teacher Preparation Program at the University of San Francisco. Under the guidance of Engage San Francisco staff, the school’s literacy coach, and classroom teachers, interns work six to twelve hours a week to improve K-5 literacy proficiency while fostering competent communication while speaking, reading, writing, and listening. Interns, required to complete the entire semester must consistently demonstrate the same professional and ethical behaviors expected of teachers, and are enrolled in a 1-unit Directed Study course. The course, Literacy, Environments, and Assessments, emphasizes the basic history of the community, literacy instruction, social emotional development, trauma informed approaches, and effective use of the learning environment.

Several questions guide the development of the literacy program. These include: What would this literacy program look like? How do we define literacy? What are the literacy goals of the school? What is best practice for TK-5 students? What are worthy and reasonable goals for university interns? How do we involve teachers? How do we build a relationship of trust with the school in light of the fact that a previous partnership folded? From these inquiries, these key questions emerged:

  1. How do we create a literacy program for traditionally disenfranchised K-5 students who consistently perform lower than their white counterparts in spite of laws and policies designed to support their academic achievement?
  2. How do we create a literacy program for teacher candidates, that models effective teaching, embraces diversity, addresses biases, and focuses on community?
  3. How do we move the conversation from “volunteers” in the classroom to members of the school community?


The initial launch of the pilot has been far from perfect, but we have learned as we face challenges, and we make changes and restate our commitment to moving from the pilot stage to executing the literacy program in the fall of the 2017-2018 academic year. Feedback from school administrators has led to discussions on expanding the program and including two prekindergarten classrooms. Initial findings thus far suggest that although only 20 percent of interns had any involvement with the school community prior to placement, 100 percent see themselves committed to continuing the internship during the 2017-2018 academic year. We have also learned that the school’s literacy needs were broader than the original plan. Instead of teaching in only two classrooms, interns work in classes across the grade span and have begun the process of seeing themselves as more than volunteers in the school but actually members of a community.

Learn more about Engage San Francisco’s literacy programs and other community partnerships by contacting Karin Cotterman, Director of Engage San Francisco <>