Heading Towards the Finish Line

Focus and Determination

In City Year’s Diplomas Now program, corps members work with students who are identified as “at-risk.” Corps members help students who show key indicators of being off-track and work with them one-on-one to help them through poor attendance, behavior issues, or academics.  In this Starfish Story, corps member Denise Taylor explains her journey to get middle-school student Joshua* back on track.

“I know what the answer is. It’s four. Can’t I just write that?” Joshua* asks me as he rubs his hair. He peers into my face with his big eyes as he sweeps his matted hair back – still visibly wet from swim class.

He’s right, but this is also the ump-teenth time I’ve told him that his work has to be written out so Mr. Moor can gauge our progress. Joshua’s attention span used to vary greatly from day to day. His behavior is mostly due to the fact that prior to this year, he had been out of school for more than a year and hasn’t had to flex his focus and motivation muscles for some time.

“You know what I’m going to say, Joshua. We always write out our work.” I point to the pile of worksheets we’ve been doing together since we started our one-on-ones in an effort to help him to catch up with his classmates.

“But I’m right?” he says with a smile, as he presses his freckly cheeks together to make a face at me.

“You need to be able to demonstrate how to properly solve equations. It’s something all eighth graders need to know how to do.” I nod at the paper.

“Fine. Argh. But I know it in my head,” he says, a little exasperated.

“Think back to what we’ve done and take your time.” I pat him on the shoulder. “You can do this.”

Today is the last day of our sessions. For the past five weeks, I’ve been working with him diligently on his catch-up math materials. He has all of the capability, but at times he had so few of the other skills and knowledge needed to complete his work.

I’ve been helping him fill in those gaps. He was always tired from not sleeping, so I met up with him before school and we made a plan for how he would get more sleep that night. I got creative with his tutoring. Sometimes we would work out an entire worksheet by mock singing out the steps to each equation. I tried to be the most dynamic person he saw each day so he would be engaged when it came to math, for which I knew he had a natural capability.

It was tough, but Joshua was more than up to doing the tasks and he worked so hard to get back on track. Watching him take his final test to demonstrate that he’s up to speed with his peers makes me excited and hesitant. I know I get to keep working with him in this class and in his English class, but I will miss the intensive one-on-one sessions.

“Hey Joshua, take a breath. You know this,” I tell him before the test, thinking back to all the time I’ve spent with him.


“I know you’re going to do great, but you have to finish this test. I’m going to leave you alone to get it done, all right?” I say.

He says – “Yeah, okay. I think I can do it by myself now.”

I know he can.

*Names have been changed

Text by Denise Taylor, City Year Seattle/King County corps member of the JPMorgan Chase/NELA Diplomas Now Team at Denny International Middle School

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