by Michael Stevens, National Student Engagement Services Director
During my time as a City Year AmeriCorps member in Baton Rouge, I experienced firsthand how powerful and transformational positive developmental relationships—described by the Search Institute as “helping young people be and become their best selves”—can be. City Year AmeriCorps members serve in schools full-time as near-peer tutors, mentors and role models. As they help support students’ academic, social and emotional needs, working with students from before the first bell rings in the morning until the last child is picked up from afterschool programs, they develop strong bonds with students, often becoming the first to hear about the good—and not so good—things going on in students’ lives.
“In my first year of service, I had a first-grade student who was very quiet,” says Matthew Zittle, who served as a City Year AmeriCorps member in Washington D.C. and now oversees teams of AmeriCorps members as an impact director with City Year D.C. “I'd ask the student every day if he was okay and he would say, ‘Yeah,’ and then look down and not say much else. The only time I saw him smile was at recess. At one point, he was absent for chunk of time. When he was back in school, I asked him if he was okay. He burst into tears and said, ‘I’m really hungry.’”
“It was painful to know this student was holding this information in,” Matthew says. “I had a little context about the student's family and knew that they were experiencing hard times. I ended up connecting with my partner teacher and she and I worked with the school to make sure he always had food. Other teachers made sure he had breakfast, lunch and a snack, and the school worked with the parents to help them find more resources.” In helping to support this student’s most urgent need, Matthew was able to help the student better engage in learning.
Research shows that children growing up in poverty are at heightened risk for “adverse childhood experiences”— including issues like homelessness, living with someone who has a mental illness or addiction, or suffering the loss of a parent—that can derail academic achievement and healthy development. Yet, in schools in high-poverty neighborhoods, there often aren’t enough school counselors, social workers and mental health professionals to support the level of student need. While the American School Counselor Association recommends one school counselor for every 250 students, the average ratio in the United States is one counselor for every 491 students.
My decade-plus experience of working in schools has underscored for me the fact that relationships with caring adults are essential to children’s academic achievement, healthy psychological development and other positive outcomes, including graduating from high school. Like Matthew, I've seen shy and reserved students come out of their shells through their relationship with a City Year AmeriCorps member. Sometimes having someone say, "I see you," or be willing to sit and practice a tough math problem builds trust and meaningful connections between the AmeriCorps member and the student.
Though City Year AmeriCorps members cannot and should not fulfill the role of professionals who are trained to deal with significant student issues, the relationships they build with students can help facilitate dialogue between students in need and other caring adults who can help them. Because of this, Matthew calls City Year AmeriCorps members “first responders.”
“We help the student gain the confidence to share their story with one of these caring adults,” Matthew says.
During my first year on staff with City Year D.C., I was fortunate to work in a school that had a social worker through the Washington D.C. Department of Health. I would schedule time for the social worker to meet with my team of AmeriCorps members consistently so they could talk through what some of their students were experiencing. These meetings became the time for AmeriCorps members to share important information, such as if a student was being bullied or dealing with the loss of a family member. Through these stories, our AmeriCorps members provided the social worker with rich context and examples of how these issues were affecting student behavior. City Year eventually expanded this partnership with the Department of Health so that social workers could provide additional training to our entire corps.
Learning about some of the trauma and difficulties that my students and Matthew’s students are facing has fueled our sense of urgency and our commitment to support students holistically. We know that a student’s academic achievement is tied to their well-being, and we want to ensure our students thrive not only in school, but also in life. Before I started my service year I thought, “I'm going to teach a bunch of kids.” By the end of my year as an AmeriCorps member, I understood that the key to helping students learn and persist through challenges is through positive relationships.
“We are on the ground with the students and notice things,” Matthew says. “We form strong bonds with students and they trust us. This trust is something that we don't take lightly. Students know that they can trust whoever is wearing the City Year jacket. This is partly due to City Year's consistent presence in schools, but also because AmeriCorps members show up every day with genuine interest in the lives of the students they serve.”