A Journey of Civic Change in Sacramento City Unified: From Pockets of Change to Systems of Opportunity

“Y-PLAN is a way to start building those relationships and opens up new avenues of communication between city planners and city officials and citizens… even if they happen to be really young citizens right now.”  
- Chrisitn O’Cuddehy (Health Professions High School Teacher)


When we think of social justice movements, we have a tendency to gravitate towards scenes of people taking to the streets and marching. We fall in love with the iconic images of historic figures such as Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Angela Davis and the list goes on. We seldom consider classrooms serving as foundational pillars of social change. Here at the University of California Berkeley Center for Cities + Schools (CC+S), we believe change begins in the classroom, and educators and their students are the true conductors of change and transformation within their neighborhoods. CC+S’s Y-PLAN Initiative works with city officials and civic partners to collaborate with local schools to do just that: engage youth in tackling the greatest challenges facing their neighborhoods and cities . Five years ago we teamed up with Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD), the California Endowment, and the City of Sacramento to implement a two year pilot of the Y-PLAN initiative in Sacramento, focusing on how SCUSD Health Academies can inform and plan for healthier, more vibrant cities in partnership with civic leaders.

Over the course of the two year pilot we implemented projects at Arthur A. Benjamin Health Professions High School and Hiram Johnson High School. Through the health focused pathways, teachers were able to engage youth in a project that initiated change within their community. One veteran Y-PLAN teacher from Health Professions High School, Christin O’Cuddehy, expressed how the introduction of Y-PLAN changed the schooling experience for her students: “We were in the classroom, we were LOOKING at real world issues but we weren’t so much out in the world… when I brought in Y-PLAN to my students, it just kind of lit them up!” 

Community partner WalkSacramento served as the first project client and asked students: “How does the design of your city impact your health? How can we work to improve healthy eating habits and encourage physical activity throughout your school's environment and neighborhood?”

Over the course of 12 weeks, 4 different classes worked to answer this question and proposed research-based solutions to improve the quality of life for their peers and neighbors within their school and the community at large. Ideas ranged from creating a free period totalling 24 minutes to allow students to engage in different physical activities, to simply providing more filtered water-filling stations to encourage proper hydration. 

Anastasia Thanpaeng, a student at Hiram Johnson High School, is a prime example of how project based learning can truly change the mindset of young people as being actual change makers! In a Y-PLAN blog she co-authored, she explained that “It feels good that people do listen to our voices and we can actually really make change, especially here in this community. And it makes me want to do more projects, makes me want to go further on and talk about more issues and what we can do to fix them.”  It’s testimonies like Anastasia’s that really propelled and solidified this two year pilot into an on-going effort. 



Five years later, during the 2019-20 school year, the Sacramento Y-PLAN partnership has evolved into a district-wide effort to implement civic work-based learning into Career Access Instruction Pathways and Academies. This expansion aims to meet the labor markets needs for high demand and high paying careers within the Sacramento region. Through exposure in a variety of career sectors ranging from law and social justice, to urban agriculture to culinary arts, these pathways are allowing young people to explore different career opportunities as well as gain skills required for the workforce. As such, the 2019-2020 academic year saw Y-PLAN implementation in SCUSD nearly triple, from 2 high schools and 90 students, to 5 high schools and 6 different pathways engaging 250+ students. 

During the spring of 2020, three Y-PLAN Sacramento civic clients representing local and statewide issues partnered with SCUSD students through Y-PLAN:

  • Lianne Dillon, Deputy Program Director of the Governor’s Health In All Policies Task Force, Public Health Institute
  • Remi Mendoza, Senior Planner of the City of Sacramento
  • Kriztina Palone, Director of the Mayor’s Workforce Collective

Each client posed unique project questions involving the City’s General Plan, the Climate Action Plan, Work Force Initiative, and finally the Statewide Schools’ Facilities Policy Initiative. 

In early 2020, we held a Civic Roundtable where Sacramento City clients, civic partners, SCUSD educators and district representatives came together to spend an evening convening around the proposed issues and, more importantly, to have an opportunity to familiarize themselves with one another and see with whom they will be working. 

As teachers began the process of introducing these current projects and conducting research for final proposals, the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic altered the form of education and schools. Despite the Shelter-in-Place order and challenges with technology access, however, Y-PLAN teaching partners are working together to identify doable and meaningful next steps for their students!   

Throughout the spring, students were introduced to a wide range of issues addressing climate change, affordable housing, city zoning policies, and economic development in the City of Sacramento, even as the face of schooling changes before our eyes. 

What makes SCUSD expansion so unique is the diversity of pathways that have participated in Y-PLAN.  From its beginnings in 2015 focusing on Health Pathways, today Y-PLAN Sacramento is reaching students in multiple career pathways from Urban Agriculture, Culinary Arts, to Law and Social Justice. Through this diversity, we can see how civic engagement takes place in various disciplines. As SCUSD teachers work to adjust to the digitization of their classrooms, they are trying to navigate this digital divide by finding ways to keep students engaged. 



Chio Saephanh, Academy lead of the Law and Social Justice Pathway at Luther Burbank High School and former attorney, is currently teaching a unit on housing law and policies.  In her Y-PLAN spring project, thirty 11th grade students are serving as consultants to the City of Sacramento Planning Department. The initial goal for students was to work over the course of 3 months to develop recommendations to build more innovative affordable housing for families and residents through new zoning policies. However, since the statewide school closures in mid-March, the project has been undergoing a digital transformation. Although COVID-19 has posed many challenges for educators, teachers have seen Y-PLAN as an opportunity that is relevant to their students' lives and plan to continue their project online using Google Classroom and video calls to brainstorm project ideas and finalize their presentation for the client. 

“The connections I see my students make as they experience their city and neighborhood is incredibly rewarding. The students don't just learn content, they learn to think of their physical environment in a way that will have a lasting impact on them; that is invaluable.”  
- Chio Saephanh, Luther Burbank High School Teacher

As educators and families adjust to this new reality of distance learning, our civic clients have provided tremendous support to continue the work. The Planning Department is currently facing their own challenges at a city level. However, they have continued to support Y-PLAN teachers and students as they find such connections core to their own planning goals and objectives.

Before the school closure, planners and the City of Sacramento’s Urban Design Manager, participated in a Y-PLAN housing field trip to the Ice Blocks neighborhood of Sacramento. Thrilled to be a Y-PLAN civic client for Luther Burbank High School, the Planning Department is working to find ways to continue to engage the community during the Shelter-in-Place, and Y-PLAN has provided that avenue to connect with the youth of Sacramento. About students' participation in the process, Senior Planner Remi Mendoza remarked, “The General Plan is the 20 year blueprint for the growth. . .  Within 20 years, the youth of today will be the leaders of this City!”

This is just one example of how students are embarking on an experience where they can apply what they are learning in class and utilize those skills to develop a planning proposal with a professional city planner. Despite the current public health crisis, educators are playing an important role, now more than ever, to establish some sort of normalcy in the lives of our young people. Educators are working hard to maintain relationships with students, and Y-PLAN is just one of those tools that has aided teachers in providing an opportunity for students to participate in a meaningful authentic project. As previous Y-PLAN Sacramento Client Christina Barnes, of the Health Education Council, puts it: 

“By engaging youth in these decision making processes it really builds a sense of community and gets them thinking not only about their future but what this community looks like… one student put it perfectly ‘nothing about us without us.’”



Over the past 20 years, Y-PLAN has worked in schools across California and beyond, and time and time again we have seen how it has transformed the mindsets of educators, young people and city officials to the idea of civic-based learning. Even as Sacramento’s Y-PLAN journey is still expanding, it demonstrates how one targeted pilot can grow into a powerful wave for civic change through project-based learning. Through this difficult time, educators, civic leaders, and young people are demonstrating their resilience and building community by maintaining relationships through these projects.

We did not anticipate that within five years Y-PLAN would become a districtwide effort to engage educators and students into city-wide projects. We hope that the momentum behind this kind of learning will continue to spread above and beyond, with SCUSD serving as a statewide model for innovation. When looking back on these projects, it’s the students like Anastasia who make us realize just how much we need to empower our youth. Now more than ever, young people need a seat at the table to help prepare us for a rapidly changing and uncertain future.