By Rebekah Hackney
AmeriCorps member on the Northrop Grumman team serving at Ketcham Elementary School
“Hi, May I speak to the parent or guardian of Zora Cuff*, please?”
In the brief silence that followed my question, I could hear the person on the other end deciding whether or not to hang up on me.
“This is her mom,” she replied hesitantly.
“Hi, My name is Rebekah and I am the City Year in Zora’s fifth grade classroom. I’m calling to ask if Zora will be able to make it to school today.”
A sigh came from the other end, which is not an unusual response to my attendance phone calls that I make every morning.
“No, we had a rough night at the shelter last night.”
Her words, delivered with a defeated laugh, sent a shock through me. Shelter? It was my turn for a brief silence.
“Do you know when we can expect her back in class?”
“Um, probably tomorrow.”
“Okay great, we look forward to seeing her tomorrow. Thank you.
I hung up and stared at the attendance record in front of me. Zora had missed eight days of school that month and was tardy for even more. I suspected that she lived far away from our elementary school in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, DC, but it was not until this phone call that I realized why she had trouble getting to school. I thought about all the signs of homelessness that I did not see before. Zora had few uniform pieces and those she had were old and worn. Her homework was frequently incomplete or missing and her behavior chart, which we use to track student behavior, went unsigned most days. Where was she spending most of her nights?
Tears filled my eyes as I quickly walked to the City Year room where my Team Leader witnessed my poorly disguised tears. I recalled my own experience being homeless in my senior year of college, and my heart swelled with empathy for my student and her family.
“When you’re homeless,” I told my Team Leader, “you are tired and scared all the time.”
I can’t imagine how difficult it is to go through that as a child. How can I expect her to be ready to learn every day when she doesn’t even have a stable place to sleep? He told me that while we cannot help what happens when our students leave -- we can control what happens when our students are here. That is why it is important for us to serve with excellence, and make sure our students have a chance to succeed.
This experience is engrained into my memory. When I am tired and I need motivation to teach another small group lesson with excellence, I think of Zora and my other fifth graders who are dealing with challenges most adults would struggle with themselves. For many of our students, school is the only consistent safe space they have. Teachers and City Year AmeriCorps members try to serve as positive role models consistently and stable adults with whom they have good relationships. Anacostia, along with having a high rate of unemployment and violence, is also a food desert, so often, the only well-balanced meals our students eat are at school. The primary schools feed into high schools called “dropout factories”, the last stop before prison in the school-to-prison pipeline.
It was not until I joined City Year that I learned the difference between being below grade level and having a learning disability. An outsider might look at my students’ scores, see that all but nine are below grade level, dismiss them as dumb, and never think they could amount to anything. But my students amaze me every day with their curiosity, their drive, and their potential. They know they are behind their peers, and while it does occasionally frustrate and discourage them, that is where I step in to tell them that they can improve their reading level, they can do long division, and they can control their emotions to prevent them from getting in fights.
Every morning, my students stand and recite the Ketcham Creed with the morning announcements: “Welcome to success, a place where we do our best. We always encourage and support each other. We never put down and discourage each other. We may be children, but we have big dreams. Working together, we can achieve anything. Welcome to success, a place where we do our best.”
My students do have big dreams. They dream of graduating from college and traveling around the world; some want to be inventors, some want to be counselors or doctors. When I see them distracted in class or getting in fights, I ask them, “What’s the goal?” and they tell me, “Purple all day.” When a student reaches purple on their behavior chart, it means the student exhibited college-bound behavior. They did not just raise their hand and contribute to class discussion, they also thought critically and responded in full Standard English sentences. I am overjoyed when I know my student is on purple, because I can see them overcoming the circumstances in their life that do not set them up for success. School is a place where they can do their best and achieve anything.
When I tell people that I am serving as a City Year AmeriCorps member, their eyebrows come together and their head tilts slightly in confusion. “So, you are basically working for free?” I answer, "Yes and no. I get a paid a small living stipend." “What made you want to do that?” In response, sometimes I mention that I enjoy being a part of a group of passionate individuals working toward positive change. Sometimes I mention that even though City Year is pushing me farther and harder than anything I ever did in college, and I enjoy the challenge. However, I never forget to mention how inspiring my students are. Students like Zora are the root of my decision to serve with City Year. I believe that given the support they need, students who are behind can be on grade level and be on track for graduation. I believe that having a solid education can create opportunities for upward social mobility and a brighter future.
*Student name has been changed
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