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California City Solutions: Chula Vista’s Youth Leadership Academy Opens Eyes of High School Students to City Government

June 11, 2015
This story is part of an ongoing series featuring Helen Putnam Award entries.
The 2014 entries are available on the League’s website as a resource for cities in a searchable database called California City Solutions. Chula Vista’s Citizens Youth Leadership Academy was submitted in 2014 for the Ruth Vreeland Award for Engaging Youth in City Government award category.Chula-Vista-CYLA-Mayor-student-program.jpg
The city of Chula Vista is home a school district that serves more than 40,000 students. Students often report having a difficult time finding opportunities to fulfill the district’s community service requirement for high school graduation. The city in response developed its Citizens’ Youth Leadership Academy (CYLA) to help engage youth, inspire community service and explore future career paths.
Started by former Mayor Cheryl Cox, CYLA advanced youth understanding of city government and functions in an effort to encourage informed civic engagement. The program, which ran only during the end of the 2013-14 school year, exposed high school students to a variety of public service careers, emphasizing the importance of high school graduation. It also exposed participants to the types of professions available as students engage in continuing education, college and prepare for a career.
As a former educator and school administrator, then Mayor Cheryl Cox drew on her experience and worked with staff to identify the elements needed to produce a youth-focused civic engagement program. Five key categories were identified: audience, program curriculum, funding, recruitment and incentives and desired outcome.
When designing the program curriculum, the city decided to target active high school students in their junior year on the verge of preparing for graduation, college and/or a career path. The program focused on topics and interactive activities that would best target the audience’s interest and further promote conversation among their peers and family members during and after the program.
Recruitment proved to be one of the biggest challenges. City staff wanted student participation from every high school in the city, including public, private and charter schools. The fact that different school systems operate on varying annual schedules with many students participating in extracurricular activities compounded the challenge by reducing when the program could be offered to a narrow timeframe.
The city stressed the importance of optimal attendance allowing only one absence, which helped increase exposure to city government operations and the variety of professions available to students, helping to emphasize the importance of high school graduation.
CYLA consisted of a replicable six-week leadership academy, hosted by the mayor, designed to empower high school juniors through interaction with the city’s elected officials, executives and staff and their respective responsibilities within the city.
Sessions were held on consecutive Wednesday evenings at the Chula Vista City Hall. A typical session began with an optional one-hour study hall for students arriving early, followed by a meal for students to interact with the mayor and featured presenters, along with other students. Presenters included one executive and/or council member and a department staff member. Evening sessions ran two hours, including presentations, activities and tours of city departments.
The program wrapped up with a Saturday city-wide bus tour, given by the mayor, highlighting the city’s most promising projects, the city professions involved in turning projects from concept to completion, and the challenges with maintaining the city’s existing neighborhoods and infrastructure. Following was a graduation program for students and their families.
Walmart funded the program, being particularly interested in the concept of CYLA, and supports local education programs. Walmart’s investment of $5,000 paid for supplies, catering, the bus tour and established funds for future CYLA events, while using existing city assets to conduct the program.
Outreach to local school principals and teachers began in November 2013 in preparation for the program’s February 2014 start date. Participants received 20 community service hours for the mandated school requirement, interaction with city leadership, and a completion certificate for use as a resume builder, potential for meaningful internships and meals at the beginning of each session.
The program was designed to cover every major city department, while relating portions of each session to education and career planning. For example, the Chula Vista Police Department tour included a segment on the city’s Crime Scene Investigations unit. This experience highlighted how math and science are used in the department’s work. The tour additionally outlined the educational path needed for a career in the profession.Chula-Vista-CYLA-Students-CSI-program.jpg
Forty-one students from eight high schools in Chula Vista participated in the six-week program. Students that evaluated the program reported more interest in the interactive sessions than the lecture format. Students ranked public safety sessions the highest, followed by the bus tour, planning and development, public works, municipal finance and the role of the city attorney. As expected with high school students, the evening meal was a consistent favorite. All respondents said they would recommend CYLA to other students.
Another motivating factor from the program was opportunities for possible internships, with one awarded onsite during the session with the public works department. Other students interested in certain departments gathered contact information from department heads to organize summer internships. Students also appreciated when presenters described the road map used to achieve the role of fire chief, city manager and city attorney for examples.
Given the positive feedback from students and parents, the city concluded that merging an education program about city government with information about the educational requirements and experience needed to plan for careers provided a meaningful understanding of public service and encouragement to an age group that is preparing for their future.

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