Maria came to me as a small, shy sophomore who was obviously out of place in school. I was in my second year of a commitment to teach high school science in Tuscaloosa, Ala., through Teach for America. As a native Spanish-speaker, Maria struggled to fit in at Bryant, a school where 90 percent of the population was African American, and only 1 percent of students understood her first language. She’d been placed in my physical science class, the class that counselors use as a “science placeholder” for students who make below a C in math or science in the year before. Not a single person in the class spoke to her for the first month of school. She smiled at me, did her work, and never failed to follow a direction. She wasn’t a “problem student” or a “top performer;” she was in that easy-to-miss middle ground.

I started to pay closer attention to Maria when she became the subject of a study done through The University of Alabama on students who speak English as a second language in Title I schools. I met with Maria individually, and I sat with her more often during class to ensure she understood the challenging work. I paired her with peers who matched her dedication to learning. I gave her small tasks to complete daily: answering questions out loud, asking a peer for help, offering help to someone else. I bonded with her family, visiting her home and going to dinner with her mother and sister. In a matter of a few months, Maria transformed from a shy student with a D average into the leader of the class with an A average. 

When Maria left my class, she transitioned into pre-AP chemistry and made her way onto the A/B honor roll. In spring of last year, I had the privilege of inducting her into the National Honor Society. This year, Maria will graduate in the top 10 percent of her class and attend college in the fall, where she plans to become a registered nurse in order to help people. 

Maria is one of the many reasons I chose to join the staff at City Year. Our corps members see the potential in students like her – students who could easily be overlooked because they’re not the highest performer or the biggest behavior problem. Corps members spend 10 hours a day working against the effects of the achievement gap, poverty, peer pressure, and stereotypes to make kids feel loved, smart, and empowered to be better. Through all of their “Maria’s,” I’m able to stay invested in this difficult, but rewarding, work.

Written by Allison Cook, proud Program Manager serving on the Acosta Team at Jean Ribault High School


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