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The right person at the right time
Life lessons in leadership from City Year Chicago.
It’s 7:15 a.m. and the sun is rising on Kelvyn Park High School in Chicago’s Hermosa community. The hallways are quiet and empty, but in room 132 the City Year team is meeting for their morning-ritual readiness check. All 10 members standing in a circle, they inspect their uniforms—khaki pants with red and white tops displaying their City Year patch—and end by reciting the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“A heart full of grace, my mind up to pace,” they all said in unison. “And a soul generated by love.”
This is the motto of City Year, a nation-wide nonprofit organization immersing highly trained individuals ranging from 17 to 24-years-old within high-need public schools in order to combat the nation’s present drop out crisis where over 1 million students drop out of school every year. The program focuses on three areas: attendance, behavior, and course performance. According to a study by Johns Hopkins University, targeting these areas as early as sixth grade can enhance a student’s chance of graduating and continuing on to college.
Right as the students walk into school, the corps members are outside the main entrance, greeting them with high fives, wishing them good luck and reciting motivational chants. Right at the start of the day, they foster a supportive and encouraging climate that makes students want to come back the day after.
“The greatest success happens when a student feels an adult cares about them,” said Kelvyn Park Assistant Principal Carol Garai.
“City Year creates a type of positive energy felt throughout the whole building.”
One year ago, positive energy was one of many things lacking at Kelvyn Park, along with the schools ability to adhere to federal performance and attendance standards placing the school under academic probation. Many students were failing in their classes or not even showing up for school.
“There’s a lot of cultural reasons such as single parent homes and children having children,” Garai said, adding that 95 percent of the student body is under the federal lunch program. “It’s likely many students are working full time jobs to put food on the table and school is seen as less of a priority.”
Garai believes in encouraging youth with the benefits of a higher education, which in turn, can break the socially repetitive cycle when no one in the family has ever attended college. But Kelvyn Park’s tight budget limited it from the resources required to initiate such change. After a 2-year application process consisting of demographic and neighborhood problem reports, in 2011 Kelvyn Park received a federal education grant giving it the means of implementing new practices such as City Year.
“Working with students who come from difficult situations makes you realize the disparity of education,” team leader Carina Gonzalez said. “The system expects them to adhere to certain standards and go back to lives that aren’t conducive to that type of learning.”
Working along side teachers, corps members promote constructive learning environments by actively assisting students in the classroom, holding individual sessions with students throughout the day and hosting tutoring sessions after school.
“You make an impact just by relating to them, listening and being yourself ” she said. “It’s a great feeling.”
Working with Gonzalez is Alex Mclaughlin, DePaul’s former 3-year Lacrosse captain before graduating in 2011. McLaughlin is one of fourteen City Year members that are DePaul alumni, placing DePaul among the top universities across the country with graduates working in City Year.
“It comes from DePaul’s Vincentian model of Leadership,” she said, referring to DePaul’s ongoing mission to reach out to underserved populations. “DePaul wants its students to be active within the community.”
A psychology major with a concentration in human services, DePaul both required and provided an internship McLaughlin with an education-focused non-profit, inspiring her to apply for City Year shortly after Graduating. After experiencing first hand why 40 to 60 percent of freshman don’t graduate from urban public schools servicing low-income communities, after City Year she wants to continue working towards a solution.
“Working in this type of setting makes me want to become a social worker,” she said. “I’d rather have a job where I get something out of it by working in the community.”
Assistant principal Garai explained the effect City Year has on the student body is incomparable. In one year attendance rates are up and students voluntarily attend tutoring sessions as they become more actively engaged in their academics.
“They’re young, motivated and able to relate to students on a level better than any teacher can.” Garis said. “The students look up to them and are inspired to stay in school.”
In a society where every 26 seconds a student gives up on school, instilling change in an environment where it’s needed most is not the easiest job. The days are long, the stress can be overwhelming, and the result of your work is sometimes hard to see when new obstacles are constantly arising. Overall improvement may not happen over night, but the City Year team is still hopeful their efforts at Kelvyn Park are creating a lasting impact.
“You’re not always going to get the reaction you want,” team leader Gonzalez said. “But there are times when you just get through to them…the smallest shift in behavior or attitude…even when you’re not expecting it.”
It’s 4:30 p.m. and the after-school tutoring session is coming to a close. As the City year team is saying goodbye to their students before heading into their evening meeting, a student says bye to corps member Lara Mbayed and begins walking towards the exit.
He stops and turns around. “Oh yeah, I’m getting a ‘B’ in that class now,” he said. “I raised it from a D.”
“That’s awesome!” said Mbayed. “Keep it up.”
“Yeah,” the student said, turning back down the hallway. “Just thought I would let you know.”