Sara Duckery, one of three social workers on staff at Kelly Miller, has one-on-one appointments with 26 students each week, in between adjudicating all manner of adolescent drama. Her office is a room off a hallway on the first floor. There is paper piled on her desk and a puffy winter coat tossed on top of her chair. The space has the feeling of being constantly interrupted and returned to: when she pushes away from her desk, the chair catches her momentum and rolls away, pens stay uncapped; hers is the opposite of a desk job. Much of what she sees – he-said-she-said controversies and arguments between friends – are similar to what you’d see at any middle school. But there’s an additional layer of complication that has to do with what many students encounter in their daily lives.   

Sara Duckery


It shouldn’t be surprising that children who grow up in poverty have more stress in their lives on average than children who are raised in middle class or affluent communities. Research suggests that that the stress kids encounter – whether its having extra responsibility (for a younger sibling, for example), witnessing violence or being hungry – can alter the physical development of their brains, making it harder for them to fully develop skills such as concentration, emotional regulation, trusting other people and feeling optimistic about their futures. But those same researchers have also determined that it’s possible to help kids overcome the stress inherent in poverty, by supporting them to hone skills associated with social-emotional development.  

 “You would assume that someone in sixth grade knows that they should look someone in the eye when they talk to you, but that’s not always the case,” Duckery explains. It’s just one small example of a social-emotional skill that corps members help students learn. 

Duckery notes that SEL growth isn’t something that happens in a week or two, or even over a few months, though she has seen positive change over time: “You could see students changing and communicating and talking more because they had a City Year they could go to once or twice a week and talk about what they wanted to talk about and feel more comfortable.” 


“A growing body of research shows that social-emotional learning is an important part of student development. It facilitates academic growth, positive school climate and caring communities, and prepares students to become responsible citizens

— Yael Kidron, Ph.D. and David Osher, Ph.D., American Institutes of Research