written by Matt Repka, corps member serving on the Serve DC Team serving at Johnson Middle School
City Year Washington, DC is at work full-time at 14 sites within District of Columbia Public Schools
(DCPS), providing tutoring, mentoring and other supports to some of the city’s most underserved youth. A wide range of students, from kindergartners all the way up to high school-aged students, can rely on City Year teams to provide critical academic and emotional supports.
All City Year teams serve as part of a Response to Intervention (RTI)
model – targeting potential dropouts on the basis of early warning indicators
and encouraging corrective action. City Year corps members target at-risk students using the “ABCs” – attendance, behavior, and course performance in English and math. These are the best indicators of future dropouts, and when students starting as early as sixth grade display even one of these indicators they can b considered off track for graduation. But implementing these supports – at both an individual and school-wide level – can present different challenges based on students’ ages. Strategies that work for elementary schoolers, for example, may not be as optimal in a high school environment.
Claire Whitmer, a corps member at Stanton Elementary School, works with second grade students. At that age, a lot of time is spent managing the classroom environment. “They don’t…know how to manage their own energy,” Whitmer said. “We know how to check ourselves, and sit still for 20 minutes if we need to. They don’t have those skills yet.”
“Younger kids are all about the external – trying to figure out what’s going on around them.”
In middle schools, maturity can bring a new set of challenges and opportunities. “You’re dealing with hormones,” Deena Guirguis, who serves at Johnson Middle School, said. “They can be one person one day, and another person the next – they don’t know who they are yet.”
“They’re more [malleable] as people, and you can catch them at a time while they’re on the brink,” Guirguis continued.
Atif Choudhury, a corps member at Kelly Miller Middle School, said one strategy he employs is to talk to his sixth grade students about their career aspirations.
“I try to make these connections between what they want to do and how important education is – no matter what they want to do,” he said.
Middle school, Choudhury said, is “that perfect age where they’re still young enough that I can have a decent impact on how they see the world and how they see their education, but old enough where they have the maturity to have these conversations.”
Tarangi Sutaria serves at Spingarn Senior High School, the only DCPS high school with a City Year team. While high school students are the oldest end of the spectrum, sometimes the challenges are quite similar.
“One thing I’ve realized is that they’re still children – what these students crave most is to have someone say they care about them. I care about your grades, I care about how you do in school…they can be very defensive. They’re sure of who they are, and they don’t welcome others to challenge their actions,” Sutaria said.
“There’s two ways of looking at the students. One is as children, and I have to always remind myself that despite how they act, they sometimes don’t know any better. At the same time, they’re so close to being adults, and some are over 18. So it’s about striking a balance between the children they are and the adults they will become, because otherwise you’re ineffective.”
Though City Year corps members wear identical red jackets, the responsibilities they confront and the challenges they face can often vary greatly. Despite these differences, every corps member, elementary school to high school, is united by the common goal of ending the dropout crisis and closing the achievement gap in American education.