Starfish Opening Day


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The Starfish After-School Program is a City Year-led program for elementary school students. City Year corps members spend their school day tutoring and mentoring students and then, to extend the learning day,  students are invited to join Starfish after the final bell … Continue reading

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

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

From Distractions to Mastering Fractions

City Year corps member tutoring a student

This is the second in our series of Starfish Stories.  Read more about our starfishes to find out more about how  City Year Seattle is making a difference in the lives of children all around the city.

Sara* was always out of her seat – something was always fascinating her on the other side of the classroom, someone always provoking her to give them a piece of her mind, some unused pencil always somehow needing to be sharpened. It was always some excuse, and her work always remained unfinished. I would work with her at her seat, but she was a master of the art of distraction. On a good day, I could get her to put her name on the page and complete the first problem before she demanded to use the restroom – her favorite escape plan.

At first glance, it might seem as though she is just an overactive nine year old being a trouble maker. Beneath the surface, however, is a little girl who is always out of her seat because she is too scared of what might happen if she were to sit down.  She knows that she is having trouble understanding the material, and that is something she cannot bring herself to face.

On that day, I took a different approach. I brought her to a separate area of the room, out of view of curious classmates. She was avoiding word problems about division, so I retrieved some unit counters and placed them in front of her.

Mary has twenty cupcakes. There are ten students in Mary’s class. How many cupcakes does each student get? Pretend that these counters are delicious cupcakes. You’re Mary. What do you do?

Step by step, we worked through the first problem with a tangible strategy she could see, feel, and finally grasp. In the three months I had been in her classroom, I had never seen her work as hard as she did that afternoon. I saw her engage each problem with new found confidence: She had finally got it.

Suddenly, there was a commotion from the other side of the room. I feared this would distract Sara; however, to my surprise and delight, Sara picked up her head and said, “You can go deal with that, Miss Malia. I’ll be fine.” I really think you will be, Sara, I thought to myself, and I left her to finish her work.

Since that day, I’ve watched her using those counters, also known as manipulatives, to help her understand her math.  The fact that Sara’s realizing more and more that she learns in a tactile manner and that she can do her math if she uses the right method reminds me why I’m serving with City Year and why I’m doing this work.

I’m not just teaching these kids facts and numbers and algorithms.  I’m also teaching them how to learn and work through problems on their own, and in the process building up their confidence towards gaining skills and increasing intelligence.

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

Text by Malia Makowski, City Year Seattle/King County corps member serving at Dearborn Park Elementary

Photo by Romel Antoine