Making Progress – One Step at a Time

City Year Corps Member and Student

I already knew a little about Justin* when I began working with him in his language arts class. Other people had said to me, “Good luck. He never responds.” I soon encountered the same frustration I heard in their voices, as I collided abruptly with Justin’s academic apathy and quiet, socially withdrawn demeanor; this attitude was such a problem, in fact, that every attempt to interact with him or prompt him to work was met with silence. He simply ignored me and went about with his doodles.

However, I was prepared to do whatever was necessary to get Justin to do his work. Even if it meant that Justin would grow to despise me, I resolved to be an annoying stitch in his side, applying the positive peer pressure I felt he needed to succeed. After looking at his grades online, I knew what I was up against: his highest grade was a C, he was failing almost all of his classes, and he was at-risk of being held back a grade.

Every day, I worked to motivate Justin, and I tried to instill good academic and study habits into his daily routine. I would badger him to prepare for the start of the class lesson as soon as he walked in the room and talk about note taking, specific study tips, and everything in between. Gradually, Justin stopped ignoring me; however, his responses were less than ideal. He would grunt, sigh, and either begrudgingly comply or ask me why he should do what I asked of him. It wasn’t much, but I still considered it progress.

As the weeks and months went on, Justin would complain less and less. During my first report card conference with him, we discussed his likes, dislikes, and hobbies. Most importantly, however, we talked about his future and the possible opportunities that lay in store for him. I emphasized to him that none of that would be possible without an adequate education. This was a big turning point for our relationship, as Justin began to realize that I prompted him to work so much because I actually cared about him and his future. Slowly, Justin became more willing to do work on his own and without my pressure on him to do it.

As Justin’s motivation became more and more intrinsic, our relationship became less that of diametrical opposition, and I was able to maximize the help I could actually provide for him. He was much more receptive to my aid, and I was able to focus more on how to help him do his best; I no longer had to worry about getting him motivated and ready to work.

Now, Justin has rounded out the end of the third marking period with mostly B’s and C’s on his report card and not a single failing grade. There is still much work to be done but in just a few short months, Justin has made great improvements. In our recently completed second report card conference, we were able to have a much more genuine conversation focused around academics. He took the initiative to ask me what his prospects for promotion into the seventh grade were looking like, and he wanted to know exactly what he needed to do to keep from being held back.

As a result of Justin taking ownership of his academic work, he does not actually despise me as I feared he might. In fact, a few weeks ago he asked me impatiently if City Year would be accompanying the class field trip because he wanted me to be the chaperone for his home room. Not only do our interactions bring a smile to my face, but knowing that Justin is well on his way to academic success is an incredible joy. Just last week, he excitedly ran up to me to show off his latest progress report: A+. I could not be more proud of his improvements, and given his outstanding standardized test scores, I know Justin now has the intrinsic motivation and academic skills and habits necessary to do well in middle school and beyond.

*Names have been changed

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

City Year: Making Connections Brings Hope

A photo of corps member Rebeca

Corps member Rebeca Juarez works every day in middle school in South Seattle to mentor and tutor struggling students.

During my sophomore year, my high school was almost shut down because of failing test scores. To this day, funding has been cut every year from my former school.

Since then, I have promised myself that I will do what I can to contribute to the cause of educational equity. I pursued my teaching certification in social studies with the hope that one day, I will teach students to explore social justice issues and empower them with the skills necessary to be critical investigators throughout their lives.

I decided to give a year of service through City Year because of its commitment to closing the achievement gap and its emphasis on giving children the skills they need to graduate from high school. I work with fun, crazy, silly and interesting kids all day and help them achieve goals they once thought were unattainable. Some days, my work is confusing and a challenge. Other days, it’s a success and incredibly, unbelievably rewarding.

There is one student who is particularly special to me. Her name is Esperanza* and she is an immigrant from Mexico who has been living in Seattle for the past few years. She demonstrates more knowledge from what she has experienced than any textbook could teach her, and I am constantly amazed by the responsibilities that she, as a thirteen-year-old girl, shoulders every day.

In late December, I noticed that Esperanza was becoming extremely distracted. She would come into class, cry, raise her voice at others, or put her head down the entire period. One day, I asked Esperanza to be excused from class so that she could step outside and take a walk with me. I wanted her to tell me what was really bothering her.

“I feel trapped,” Esperanza cried as she confessed the struggles she was having at home and her school work. Immediately after our conversation, I talked to a staff member of our Diplomas Now partner Communities in Schools, who had been assisting Esperanza outside of class. Since then, I have been in constant communication with the school staff and Esperanza’s parents, entering Esperanza in our after-school program, tutoring her one-on-one in her math and language arts classes, and exploring her goals. It is creating a huge difference in her life.

I talk to her parents at least every other week to update them on upcoming projects. This constant communication and support has helped keep Esperanza focused on staying in school and thinking about what she wants to do after high school. The next step with her is figuring out her post-secondary school plans. During our first meeting, Esperanza and I talked about what she wanted for her future. At first she said that she didn’t want to go to high school because she hated school. I pointed out, “What do you think is possible with only an eighth grade education?”

She put her head down and responded, “Nothing, I guess.”

She loves drawing, music, dancing and cooking, and we have talked about possible careers in those areas. Her face lit up when she talked about being a professional chef. She said, “Ooh, I can cook tameles, enchildadas, mole. Oh, that’s gonna be filthy**.” We both laughed and I promised her that one day, I will come eat at her famous Mexican restaurant. Sometimes, we as corps members just plant the seeds and that’s all it takes for them to start running with their ideas. They just need someone to convince them that their dreams are possible.

I tutor Esperanza one-on-one every day. Recently, I found out that she has moved up from the tenth percentile to the 29th in seventh grade math, which is a increase of almost twenty points in just a few short months. She is excited about the strides she is making and I cannot wait to see her at the end of the year. She is watching doors opening in her future, which wasn’t happening when she was talking about never going back to school.

I know that like me, she will not be another statistic contributing to the achievement gap. And it’s what I work for every day.

Text by Rebeca Juarez, City Year Seattle/King County corps member

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the students we work with

**Filthy: Seattle slang for “cool”.

Starfish Story: Attention to Attendance

Corps member working with a student

The difference that City Year Seattle corps members make in the lives of students doesn’t occur at once. Changes in students’ attitudes happen with diligent effort as corps members continually show genuine support for their students. Each corps member demonstrates that education is a priority to everyone, and every effort, no matter how small is creating change.

Poor attendance is one of the three key indicators that a child is at risk of dropping out of school. In our City Year Diplomas Now schools, corps members use cell phones generously provided by T-Mobile, City Year’s  National Leadership Sponsor, to call students who aren’t in class. In this Starfish Story, corps member Sona Thinakaran tackles attendance issues with one of her middle school students.

On Monday, one of my students who has been struggling in school did not show up to first period. I called her house and asked to speak with a parent or guardian, but they were not available. Instead, her grandmother asked me if I wanted to speak with the student.

“Hi Jayne*, it’s Miss Sona.”

“Hi…” she said. I could sense the reluctance in her voice.

“Your grandma said you’re at home. Is everything okay? Why aren’t you at school?”

“I have back aches,” she said.

“Oh, okay. Are you doing all right or are you in a lot of pain?” I was a little concerned.

“I’m okay…”

“Do you think you’ll come to school later, then?”


“Well, let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you, okay? And I really want to see you at school! I hope I will see you later today.”

“Okay, Miss Sona,” she said.

Within the first/second period block of school, Jayne showed up to language arts. She later told me, “I was NOT going to come to school today, Miss Sona. But then you called my house.” The next day, Jayne did not show up to first period again. I called to have a very similar conversation with her. She told me that she would try to come in late. And again, she showed up within that first/second period block. The third day, however, was different: Jayne came to school and was on time to her first period class.

Since January, Jayne’s attendance has definitely improved. She knows I notice when she’s gone, and she’s aware that she’ll get a phone call from me if she’s not in school on time and prepared for the day. Now there have even been times when she comes into her language arts class earlier than most of her classmates and sets all of the other students’ notebooks on their tables, preparing her peers for an easier start to the day.

Currently, she does not have any unexcused absences, unexcused tardies, or unexcused early dismissals, meaning that she is in school ready to learn. Her improved attendance, one-on-one tutoring, and willing attitude to learn are all resulting in improved grades. Since taking the fall standardized test, she has increased from a 214 to a 217 in reading. It may not sound like much, but that’s almost an entire academic year’s worth of progress in approximately four months and it’s all progress that would be impossible if she weren’t in class each day.

*Names have been changed

Text by Sona Thinakaran, City Year Seattle/King County corps member

Zombies, Resident Evil and Storytelling

One of the unique aspects of City Year is that City Year corps members are not just tutors; they also form “near-peer” relationships with their students.  The day of a corps member starts before the first bell rings in the morning and ends after the last student leaves the after-school program. Corps members are not just tutors; for some they become like big brothers and sisters, and mentors. Students share more than their day with the corps members -they share a chapter in their lives together.

In this Starfish Story, a mutual love of zombies and Resident Evil brings Chris, a City Year Seattle/King County corps member to share a love of creative writing and explore how to bring a story to life with Colin*

Three of my passions in life are creative writing, watching films, and thinking about zombies.

Incidentally, these three interests proved especially useful during a recent brainstorming session with one of my students. Tasked with writing a sci-fi/fantasy story, Colin, one of my focus list students, decided to tell a futuristic tale of the zombie apocalypse. The story featured the charismatic leader of an elite commando squad. The squad leader had to battle through the hordes of undead who overran the city and try to find the evil scientist who was the mastermind behind the events.

Sometimes, Colin struggles with writing. He’ll devote limited time to the exciting, juicy parts of his narrative, instead dwelling on the background information. He has a great imagination, but his pacing of the story will feel wrong, or his descriptions won’t grab tightly enough.

On that particular day, I focused on pacing, so I told Colin to think about any zombie films he had seen (usually this is more effective than asking for examples in literature). I asked him to consider how these movies begin.

From there, we talked about where the movies go next, until we arrived on the notion of climax. Where did he want his story to end up? “Think about when the Licker appears in Resident Evil,” I said. “On the train.” He nodded. He knew what I meant – he got it. “And then the mad scientist will escape at the end, for the sequel” he said.

It was my turn to nod.

This exchange reminded me just how eager students are to share themselves through writing. I can relate.

During college, I took several fiction workshops, and my teachers helped me transform promising ideas and enthusiasm into full-fledged stories. They showed me examples in my work of what was successful and what could be improved.

I knew they were genuinely interested in my creative potential, and that was the key.

While some writers grow discouraged at any perceived criticism, Colin was extremely receptive. He knew that my suggestions came from a place of encouragement. After all, we both wanted the same thing: a good story.

*Names have been changed to protect the children with whom we work.

Text by Chris Wodicka, City Year Seattle/King County corps member serving at Aki Kurose Middle School