Good Day to all,
This week in the Detroit News, one of our City Year Detroit Alumni Holly Fournier published an editorial about her City Year Corp Year. You can read the full article after the jump
A City Year well spent in Detroit
Struggling Detroit Public Schools students inspired volunteer — and helped her learn a few things, too
Holly Fournier/ The Detroit News
Editor’s note: In June, Holly Fournier completed a year as a corps member in City Year Detroit, an AmeriCorps program that engages volunteers in 10 months of full-time community service. Corps members are dispatched to some of the city’s toughest public schools, where they serve as tutors and mentors. Fournier and her team spent the year at Peter Vetal Elementary/Middle School on the city’s west side . This is her story.
It is a struggle to find the right words to describe my experience volunteering with City Year Detroit. Part of the problem is that it is difficult to define City Year. The organization’s history is chronicled on its website. Corps members all memorize “elevator speeches” — 30-second definitions of the program. There are simple facts, like how City Year operates in 21 U.S. cities, as well as in London and South Africa. A wealth of data illustrates City Year’s impact on the crippled Detroit Public Schools system.
However, my stories paint a more personal picture. (All names have been changed because they are minors.)
Trevor was one of my first seventh-grade students. A quiet young man, he did not appear to need any help. However, it soon became clear that he struggled to read at his grade level and had difficulties with simple multiplication and division. Even more troubling, he displayed very low levels of self-esteem.
“You’re wasting your time,” he said early on, his brown eyes digging into mine. “I’m going to fail, anyway.”
When asked why he felt this way, he said he had always failed in the past, and would always fail in the future.
“I’m not sure,” I said, in a tone heavy with skepticism. “I think you’re one of the smartest kids in your class; certainly smart enough to pass seventh grade.”
Trevor was not convinced, but he reluctantly agreed to continue meeting.
Hunter began attending tutoring sessions in early January, when his third-grade class was added to my schedule. Unlike Trevor, whose demeanor almost allowed him to slip through the cracks, Hunter was not to be overlooked. Banished to the very first desk, closest to the teacher and farthest from his peers, Hunter was usually swiveled around in his seat, his eyes on another student’s business.
He did not disrupt class, but his refusal to pay attention put him on the “bad kids” list. It was with behavior intervention in mind that the weekly meetings with Hunter began.
Diana was Hunter’s classmate. She fell asleep at her desk on a daily basis. The teacher, glancing her way, simply shrugged and continued with lessons. Diana was considered a hopeless case.
Eventually, she pried herself from her nap and agreed to meet in the “City Year Room,” an unused classroom set aside for the tutors.
As she flipped to that week’s story exercise, it became obvious why she was falling asleep in class. She was unable to recognize grade-appropriate language. She was unable to sound out new words. She was 10 years old and couldn’t read.
Inspired by the kids
City Year immerses corps members in a culture of service and they become a consistent fixture in their students’ lives.
After the final bell, the students are offered a free After-School Program of games, activities and learning opportunities. On Fridays, and some Saturdays, corps members work with local groups, planting trees and scrubbing graffiti off neighborhood playgrounds. Most days are sunrise to past sunset.
I almost quit a number of times, beaten by marathon workdays, daily in-school fights and a dysfunctional school system.
Morale took a tumble every time a thriving student succumbed to temptations to fight or act out. One young man, after making an agreement with another corps member to behave, went almost a month without being suspended, only to be removed from class on the last day of the agreement.
Another student was beating the odds until a fight in the cafeteria led to her dismissal. It often felt as if the few success stories would never overcome the daily setbacks.
The main goal remained to instill a sense of confidence and positivity into the minds of students. With the exception of a handful of inspirational teachers, these students were surrounded by anger and disappointment.
At times, surrender seemed imminent. Then, new motivation was fueled by inspiration drawn from the children who depended on City Year. The key to persevering was to remember those students who greeted the volunteers every morning, always asking the same question: “Can I come to City Year today?”
June 9 marked City Year Detroit’s graduation ceremony. Proudly wearing the corps’ signature red jacket, I received my certificate.
Family members, visiting from Virginia as well as parts of Michigan, cheered me on.
My thoughts that day were with the students. Those kids got me through this past year, and I am so proud of how far they had come.
Approaching the stage, I thought of Trevor. Once a shy boy lacking confidence, he is now a young man poised for success. He scored A’s and B’s on this year’s report card, with the exception of a couple of C’s in English. He knows English is his weak spot, but he insists he will study harder and earn a B next year. Gone is any idea of failure.
In April, and at his request, his mother took him to tour a prominent Detroit private high school. The visit was motivated by a desire to increase his chances of college admission.
That’s right: Trevor has transformed from a student resigned to failure into a student bound for college.
As I turned to shake my supervisors’ hands, thoughts of Hunter came to mind. During early encounters, his eyes remained fixed on the table. One day, a crack finally appeared in Hunter’s shell.
Staring out was a little boy who was trying his best to please those who had already written him off. This new revelation was seized upon, and he was praised for his efforts. I called him a good student and declared, in front of his teacher, that he was a respectful young man who worked very well in tutoring sessions. His eyes bright, Hunter began to try even harder to prove to his teacher — and himself — that he could make it through a day without getting into trouble.
Eventually, he succeeded. He went weeks without any major missteps. Graduation became a celebration of Hunter’s journey from “bad kid” to an enthusiastic student ready to learn.
Now a City Year alum, my thoughts turned to Diana. It had been an emotional couple of months for this little girl.
Diana embraced her shortcomings and improved upon them. She memorized sounds and strung them together to form words. She made flashcards, and then used the cards to play games.
The hour a day spent with Diana was more of a break than it was work and yet, Diana was learning.
As the year came to a close, I wrote a letter to Diana. One day in early June, we sat together in the little room where she had learned to read.
In a quiet voice and with a smile, Diana read that letter aloud … all by herself.
Holly Fournier, a 2010 graduate of James Madison University, is a summer editorial assistant at The Detroit News. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.