be_ixf;ym_202405 d_27; ct_50 YES! I want to make a difference TODAY!

Learn more about our Red Jacket Society members and some of the City Year AmeriCorps members who make our work possible.

Spotlight on City Year Cleveland

Anne Schoff
Retired Teacher
City Year Cleveland Site Board Member

  • RJS Membership Level: Bronze
  • Member since: 2016
  • Supporter of: City Year Cleveland

Anne Schoff and her husband Jim are longtime supporters of City Year, ever since their daughter Megan served with City Year Boston in 1995. In fact, Anne was part of the Cleveland Bicentennial Committee that was instrumental in bringing red jackets to Cleveland in 1996, a cornerstone of the committee’s goal to develop the next generation of civically minded leaders who would bring lasting and positive change to the city.

Twenty-two years later, Anne remains an important part of City Year Cleveland, serving on its board and as the site’s Red Jacket Society Chair. As a retired teacher, Anne has a deep understanding of the challenges that students in under-resourced schools face and how transformational the relationships and supports offered by City Year AmeriCorps members are for both students and schools.

When you reflect on the work the Corps does in schools, what to you is the absolute most important thing they do for students, every day?

I believe the most important thing to happen for a student both in and out of school is for that student to know there are adults in their life who care about and respect them.

And that’s exactly what our City Year AmeriCorps members do, every day.

I witnessed this at Glenville High School during my first school visit. Even when kids were being tough and having a terrible day, the feedback provided by the City Year AmeriCorps members was more than: “It’s going to be okay.” Instead, the corps members said: “Okay, this is an issue. What are we going to do about this, together? How can I help you work through this?” They understood that their role was to support students and help make them more successful.

As a retired teacher, what struck me most on that first school visit was everything that went into the City Year room and atmosphere, from the inspirations on the walls and boards, to the vibe of each gathering space. I listened to the conversations and issues being discussed. It was evident that the City Year AmeriCorps members cared deeply, were totally dedicated to working with kids and most importantly, knew how to show them respect.

Patric Hannon
City Year Chicago Alum & Red Jacket Society Ambassador

Patric Hannon, 24, grew up in Cleveland and attended Bowling Green State University where he studied communication. After serving with City Year Cleveland for two years, Patric plans to attend Cleveland State University to pursue a master’s degree in psychology.

What does wearing the City Year jacket mean to you?

Wearing the City Year red jacket gives me a sense of pride knowing that I’m representing a cause greater than myself. I am always amazed when I’m out and about and a random person will yell “hey City Year.” Recognition from the community I serve in helps to keep me going. But it is the connections I make with students, from welcoming them with morning greeting to one-on-one tutoring and just catching up with individual students, that mean the most to me. Putting a smile on a student’s face can be the difference between them having a rough day versus a productive day.

Back to top

Spotlight on City Year Detroit

Jennifer Granger
Community Advocate & Philanthropist
Red Jacket Society National Steering Committee Member
City Year Detroit Site Board Member and RJS Co-Chair

  • RJS Membership Level: Silver
  • Member since: 2016
  • Supporter of: City Year Detroit and City Year Sacramento

Jennifer Granger and her husband, Chris, have supported City Year since 2016. Their involvement began in California where Chris, then president of the Sacramento Kings, served on the board of City Year Sacramento, and has continued after the family moved to the Detroit area in 2017. Today, Jennifer serves on the City Year Detroit Site Board and as Co-Chair of Detroit’s Red Jacket Society. She is also a member of the Red Jacket Society National Steering Committee.

For Jennifer, the fact that City Year AmeriCorps members show up for students every day is the most powerful aspect of our holistic approach to supporting student and school success, and the reason why her family is so committed to the organization’s mission. “The City Year Jacket is such a constant reminder that there are people in the world that care about them and believe that they can be something,” says Jennifer. “The red or yellow jacket for the children we serve is more than just a jacket. It’s a symbol that somebody cares about them and believes they can do great things in this world.”

What inspired you to get more deeply involved with City Year?

I went on a school tour because I wanted to learn more about City Year and its mission. After the tour, I got in my car and cried. I’m involved philanthropically in many causes and I’m touched by all them. If I shed tears for every organization I support, I’d be crying all day long. But I was so moved by the City Year tour because I grew up with challenges in my childhood. That’s where my passion for service around under-privileged children comes from–I can really relate to those kids because I was one of them.

I remember getting in the car and thinking, “Even though I’ve been able to build this great life, including the ability to give back, if I had a City Year AmeriCorps member in my life, someone who believed in me and supported me every day while I was growing up, my path would have probably been a lot easier. The school tour made me realize I wish I had corps members who believed in me, and that I could help ensure that more students receive that support and encouragement during their educational experience.”

hearthshake orange overlay City Year

Learn more about our 29 service locations across the United States.

Rob Auger
City Year Chicago Alum & Red Jacket Society Ambassador

City Year Detroit AmeriCorps member Rob Auger, 23, is from Pittsburgh, and graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in advertising. He hopes to work in development after his service year, and enjoys playing soccer and ballroom dancing. He says he serves “because I strongly believe that if someone can give, they ought to.”

What does wearing the City Year jacket mean to you?

To me, the City Year red jacket means that I am a part of something larger than myself. It connects me to all those who serve with me in Detroit as well as AmeriCorps members who are serving across the country. This is important to me because there is an inherent power to this unity. This unity means that the first time I stepped into my school in uniform, my students could trust me because of the positive experiences they had with young adults who wore the red jacket before me.

Both students and teachers see me as someone who can be relied upon to help them, whatever they may need. When people see my teammates and me in our red jackets, they know that we are there to help. Many times, people have come up to me and told me that they had a City Year AmeriCorps member help in their children’s schools, or in the schools that they have worked in. It’s those moments that remind me that the work that I get to do every day in Detroit is part of the same, larger effort that is underway across the country.

Back to top

Spotlight on City Year Chicago

Ravin Gandhi
Founder & CEO, GMM Nonstick Coating
RJS Chair & Site Board member, City Year Chicago

  • RJS Membership Level: Gold
  • Member since: 2015
  • Supporter of: City Year Chicago

Ravin Gandhi grew up and attended public school in a lower-income community outside of Chicago. A graduate of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, Ravin became a successful CPA and business executive. In 2007, he founded GMM Nonstick Coatings, where he remains CEO after the company was acquired in 2016. Ravin also founded Glenborn Partners, a private equity firm, and has invested in several start-ups as a venture capitalist.

When he learned about City Year, Ravin says he immediately understood the urgent need for additional resources in schools that serve high-need communities, and wanted to get involved in bringing those supports to more students in Chicago. “I had the huge benefit of a supportive family environment and parents who truly believed in the power of education to change lives,” Ravin says. “Not every kid has that.”

What inspired you to become more deeply involved with City Year Chicago?

I was inspired to become involved with City Year Chicago several years ago, shortly after my first school visit. I immediately saw the huge impact City Year AmeriCorps members were making on students. What amazed me were the relationships that the corps members were able to form with the students they served. I had many mentors when I was growing up and I know how important those relationships are. Seeing the energy of the corps and how the students smiled at them each morning left a deep impression on me. The teachers in the school were also raving about the City Year team.

You can tell that the students trust their corps members to have their back. Most people are smarter than society gives them credit for, and in many cases, students are underperforming because they don’t feel anyone has their back, whether it’s at home, in school or on the street. City Year corps members have changed the lives of many students, and once you personally see that, you want to roll up your sleeves and help.

Another reason why I’m passionate about City Year is because it invests in developing the leadership potential of its corps. I recently spent time with Chicago’s corps and spoke with them about life lessons and leadership, and I was very impressed with the quality of young men and women in the corps. I am sure I came away from the experience more inspired by them than they were by me!

hearthshake orange overlay City Year

Learn more about City Year’s vision for building a more equitable future in education.

Argenis Hernandez
City Year Chicago Alum & Red Jacket Society Ambassador

City Year Chicago AmeriCorps member Argenis Hernandez is from the Humboldt Park neighborhood in Chicago. He loves spoken word poetry and leads a spoken word afterschool program. He hopes to stay involved in community outreach programs in Chicago after his service year ends in June.

What does wearing the City Year jacket mean to you?

The City Year jacket is a statement. It represents decades of dedicated service and commitment to making a difference. When community members see our red jackets, they know we serve a purpose. And when I get asked questions about City Year, I make sure to proudly share our service in schools and the impact City Year AmeriCorps members strive to make, every day.

The jacket is also a symbol to me of the positive relationships I make with students, and how meaningful they are. At the beginning of the school year, one student, who I’ll call Amanda, seemed to want nothing to do with me. She usually responded to me with negative comments and typically refused to join my small groups. Even after spending many lunch periods with Amanda and working with her one-on-one, I felt like I was never going to gain her trust.

But after we returned from winter break, things started to turn around for several of my students, Amanda in particular. She is a lot more confident in her academics and she now asks me all kinds of questions and even seeks my advice, which has helped to strengthen our mentor-mentee bond.

Back to top

Building a movement with Red Jacket Society: Spotlight on City Year Los Angeles

Jon NeuHaus, City Year Boston ‘91, ’94

City Year Los Angeles Associates Board Member & RJS Chair
Managing Director, Morgan Stanley

  • RJS Membership Level: Platinum
  • Member since: 2015
  • Supporter of: City Year Los Angeles

Jon Neuhaus, an alumnus of City Year Boston who, as a college student, also aided start-up efforts at City Year Chicago and City Year San Jose, was instrumental in bringing City Year to Los Angeles in 2007. He currently serves on CYLA’s Associates Board and as the site’s RJS Chair, and is a Managing Director at Morgan Stanley.

In November 2017, Jon became the first City Year alumnus to become a Platinum-level member of the Red Jacket Society.

Why is being part of the Red Jacket Society important to you?

I come from a middle class family – my mother was a teacher and my father was a minister – and many of my educational opportunities were made possible by the generosity of others, including scholarships. Extending the opportunity for others to serve is vital – for the AmeriCorps members who dedicate a year of their lives, for the students, schools and communities City Year serves, and for the entire country as we help to develop the next generation of civic-minded leaders.

City Year’s core mission — of inspiring and helping young people, and helping mend society’s fabric — remains as central as it was 27 years ago. I saw this in-person yet again while attending the recent Red Jacket Society Leadership Conference. When I served in 1990-1991, City Year was still something of an experiment. Today, it is a movement.

Because City Year has been so inspirational to me, because I believe in its mission to help others, and because educating our young people is empowering, I was humbled to make a donation that will result in a team serving in a school in Los Angeles.

If we can successfully bring in and support 10,000 City Year AmeriCorps members through the Red Jacket Society, think of the lives touched and changed forever and the ripples these opportunities will create in high-need schools and communities across the country. That goal is both compelling and immeasurable. As a City Year alumnus, I know first-hand how critically important national service is, and it’s a privilege to be a part of City Year’s next chapter.

Abraham Galan, City Year Los Angeles ’17, ‘18
City Year Los Angeles Alum & Red Jacket Society Ambassador

City Year Los Angeles Team Member Abraham Galan, 22, is from Carson, California and graduated from Whittier College in 2016. He plans to attend graduate school and become a high school counselor in high-need communities.

What was your favorite part of being a City Year AmeriCorps member?

My favorite part is being able to serve in the Watts community in Los Angeles at schools that are similar to the ones I attended. I always see a piece of myself in the students I serve – from the elementary students I worked with at 122nd St Elementary School last year, to the high school students at Locke, where I am serving this year.

I dedicate my yellow City Year jacket to all of my peers who would have benefitted from City Year or another positive role model when we were growing up but who didn’t have that chance, and to all the students I am serving at City Year, in the hopes that I am the positive role model that they need.

Back to top

Service to a cause greater than self: Spotlight on City Year Dallas

Mark Rohr
City Year Dallas Board Chair
Chairman & CEO of Celanese

  • RJS Membership Level: Platinum
  • Member Since: 2016
  • Supporter of: City Year Dallas

Mark Rohr played an instrumental role in bringing City Year to Dallas in 2015. As CEO and Chairman of Celanese since 2012, the Fortune 500 global technology and specialty company has delivered record earnings growth. Mark’s commitment to corporate social responsibility and volunteerism is reflected by his leadership in establishing the Celanese Foundation, an employee-led effort dedicated to improving the quality of life for people around the world.

City Year Dallas Board Members (from left to right): Charles Glover, Pam Gerber, Jennifer Sampson, and Mark Rohr

What is your “Red Jacket Moment?”

A few years ago, I got involved in supporting efforts to help children with neurological disorders in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. City Year was active in both of those communities, and AmeriCorps members were helping to address the needs of students most at risk by taking a personal interest in each student they worked with, every day. I saw the very positive impact of near-peer mentoring of students who benefitted from extra attention. During my first school visit, I was struck by how happy the students were to be getting the support and attention of corps members, from early morning greetings, tutoring throughout the day, and afterschool programs. The students clearly loved it and that appreciation was easily seen in their attitudes and work.

Later, I met with foundations, educational leaders, the Mayor and local corporations involved in supporting education in Dallas. It was obvious that this city also cared about taking the tough steps needed to better support children most at risk and would benefit from having City Year – and that has been the case since City Year began serving in Dallas schools in 2015.

Shakayla Coats
City Year Dallas Alum & Red Jacket Society Ambassador

  • Serving Since: 2016
  • Served At: The Franklin D. Roosevelt High School, Celanese Team

City Year Dallas AmeriCorps Member Shakayla Coats, 21, is from Collins, Mississippi. She loves hiking and exploring, and plans to stay in Dallas after her year of service to continue to support youth in the community.

What does wearing the City Year Jacket mean to you?

My red jacket symbolizes the promise I make to my students every day, to help to empower them to challenge society’s stereotypes and be in control of their own destiny. When community members see City Year AmeriCorps members in the jacket, they know we represent a sense of hope, unity and safety. After a ten-hour day of service, students often see me outside of school and they smile and recognize that those of us in uniform are there to support them.

The energized AmeriCorps members are the first thing they see when they get to school each day. Even though it’s bright and early, there are lots of smiles, students laughing, dancing and singing along with the morning greeting. I serve because I believe that youth deserve to reach their full potential and I am so grateful to have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of students in Dallas, along with my City Year team!

Back to top

The power of belonging: Spotlight on City Year Boston

Tushara CanekeratneTushara Canekeratne photo
City Year National Board of Trustees
Founder & CEO, Nadastra, Inc.
Co-Founder, Virtusa Corporation

From her earliest days growing up in Colombo, Sri Lanka, entrepreneur, technologist and philanthropist Tushara Canekeratne has understood the power of relationships and community to change lives. Raised in a home and a culture that highly valued collective well-being and education, Tushara grew up with an expectation that she “had to do things for others,” a commitment reflected in her long-standing support for City Year.

“I believe that City Year is a life-changing year, as much for the AmeriCorps members as the students they serve, she says. “And I believe, just as my parents did, that education can change lives. City Year puts that belief into action.”

Tushara’s own life was transformed by her sixth grade math teacher, Mrs. Gamalath, who recognized Tushara’s potential and pushed her to excel at a time when girls were not always encouraged to master math and science. “If you are lucky, there are one or two people who take an interest in you when you are young and influence you,” Tushara says. “I was very fortunate to grow up in a family culture where education was valued and to be touched by so many caring and talented educators who had the best interest of the student at heart.”

Her teachers’ and family’s influence guided Tushara’s decision to attend Loughborough University in the United Kingdom where she became one of only a handful of women to graduate with a computer science and mathematics degree in the 1980s. This led her to co-found several technology companies in Massachusetts and later become founder and CEO of Nadastra, Inc., a global services company focused on business operations transformation. Actively involved in the Boston-area philanthropic community, Tushara serves on several boards including: Brigham and Women’s Hospital Advisory Council, Board of Directors for The Home for the Little Wanders, Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean’s Leadership Council and Learn to Change the World Campaign Co-Chair & Executive Committee, Harvard University Campaign Executive Committee, and Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Coalition steering committee. She also serves on the Finance and Audit Committees of City Year’s national board.

Tushara was a 2015 Fellow and 2016 Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, and 2017 Distinguished Career Institute Fellow at Stanford University, an opportunity that gave her the chance to connect with a diverse field of leaders and reflect on leadership, core values, life priorities and social impact. Over the years, Tushara has chosen to invest and support initiatives designed to make social impact on young people, leadership and education. Tushara’s philanthropic efforts align with her focus on education and investment in young leaders.

As an entrepreneur and champion of several organizations and educational institutions, Tushara has focused on building the capacity of employees and students to excel and on cultivating mentoring relationships as levers to achieve organizational excellence, accelerate personal growth and give back to the community. “I really believe that a core aspect of leadership is making the people around you feel valued and empowered,” she says. Tushara recognizes these same values in City Year’s approach of investing in human capital and nurturing a sense of appreciation, respect and community in its staff and AmeriCorps members. These young adults, in turn, model and share these priorities with the 205,000 students they serve every day.

More than anything else, City Year’s 3,100 AmeriCorps members inspire Tushara and serve as an example to her two sons, Kavan and Shane, to do their part to make a difference.

Her conversations with City Year AmeriCorps members about their work in schools have shown Tushara that they, too, share her belief in community, mentoring and helping others. That is one of the reasons Tushara is committed to supporting City Year through the Red Jacket Society. It’s also why she is so enthusiastic about tools and programs that help corps members more effectively assist students and promote their own personal and professional growth, such as an innovative youth development framework that is showing powerful results in several City Year schools, including Tushara’s hometown of Boston.

Tushara’s focus on investing in people and building strong connections has also inspired her to make a significant philanthropic investment in City Year’s LEAD program. The executive leadership development program selects a small group of high-potential City Year staff each year and trains them for leadership positions in sites and at headquarters. “It starts with each person’s strengths,” said Mithra Irani Ramaley, City Year’s Chief People Officer, who oversees the program. “LEAD is based on the belief that people are happiest and most productive when they are doing something they are passionate about and good at, and that their success benefits a wider community.”
“To scale for impact, you need leaders,” Tushara says. “As City Year gets closer to its 30 year anniversary, the organization’s impact keeps growing, and it’s important that City Year cultivate and retain its incredible talent.”

Kelly Kitterage
City Year Boston Alum & Red Jacket Society Ambassador

On a warm sunny morning in June, City Year AmeriCorps member Kelly Kittredge is working with a small group of students who arrive at 7:30 to attend a “Morning Class.” This extended day program offers students a chance to receive tutoring and extra homework help while building positive relationships and social skills before school starts at 8:30 a.m. Today is a “spirit day” at Sarah Greenwood School, a K-8 dual language school in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, and students have been encouraged to wear fun outfits. Two of the girls, Jasmine* and Maria*, are wearing oversized glasses and suspenders, while a third, Rachel*, decided to forgo a costume.

Once math homework is complete, the girls turn their attention toward finishing scrapbooks with pictures and memories from their year together. Kelly asks Jasmine, Maria and Rachel to write how the early morning class has helped them and what they appreciate most about one another on thin strips of construction paper that Kelly will later glue into the scrapbooks.

The word of the day is ‘appreciation,’” Kelly tells them. “What are the types of things you appreciate about each other and Morning Class?”

I appreciate you because… “You are a great friend and you bring me joy,” writes Maria.

What I like best about Morning Class is… “Having fun and being who I am,” writes Jasmine.

How do I feel like I belong in this group? “I feel like I belong here because I learn a lot of things and it’s safe,” writes Rachel.

The girls didn’t start the year as close friends. Fourth grade is when cliques can take hold, says Virginia Bette, City Year’s Impact Manager at Greenwood, and Jasmine, Maria and Rachel were in different social circles in September. Using training and curriculum developed by City Year, Kelly’s Morning Class focuses on engaging the students academically and socially so that they will want to come to school and go to their classes “ready to learn” – confident, focused and supported.

“We’ve been creating a community so that everyone feels safe to share,” Kelly says later. “Kids want to talk and want everyone to listen to them. The idea of our group is that everyone’s voice is heard, and we explore what the students are passionate about.” Research shows that when students feel engaged with their learning and have formed positive relationships with at least one adult at school, they are more enthusiastic about coming to school and can achieve at higher levels – critical outcomes City Year AmeriCorps members work to ensure throughout the academic year.

One of the tools Kelly has used to help these students strengthen their confidence, connect to one another and build positive relationships is the Clover model, a youth development framework that recognizes each young person’s strengths and builds on them. This approach helps corps members like Kelly forge strong relationships with students, understand their talents and needs, and cultivate key social-emotional skills that students need to succeed, such as empathy, self-confidence, resilience, reflection and a deeper sense of belonging and connectedness to others.

The Clover model is a key component of City Year’s social-emotional development approach, and stems from an understanding that a student’s academic success is directly tied to his or her emotional well-being. A growing body of research shows that in order to thrive as adults, all children need to cultivate foundational skills that enable them to learn, self-regulate and achieve at high levels. These skills help children recover after setbacks, make decisions, work in teams and develop compassion for themselves and others. This framework is one tool that helps AmeriCorps members cultivate and support these skills and ensure their students succeed academically.

This approach offers a double benefit to City Year, Mithra Irani Ramaley says. Not only does it help students to thrive, but it also represents an investment in human capital, as it helps AmeriCorps members understand one another better and work together as a team.

Developed by the PEAR Institute (Partnerships in Education and Resilience), a joint initiative of Harvard University and McLean Hospital, the Clover model has been used for several years by City Year to train school-based City Year staff and AmeriCorps members. City Year is planning to expand this training throughout the network starting in the fall of 2016.

Using the four elements or “leafs” of the Clover Model, Kelly has learned that instead of labeling a student as “fidgety and unable to control her body,” for example, she recognizes that he or she has an overly engaged “active engagement” leaf and that their lesson would be more effective if it started with a game or a walk and talk.

Kelly, an athlete who played ice hockey in Austria for a year after graduating from Brown University, says she often incorporates physical activities into Morning Class to help keep the girls engaged, develop a sense of teamwork, and work off excess energy so they can concentrate. Many conversations with her students revolve around cultivating a greater sense of connection and empathy – hallmarks of the “belonging” leaf. And creating space for them to each talk and share their ideas encourages “assertiveness” and “reflection.”

This youth development approach has also helped Kelly relate to her fellow corps members, she says.

“Clover has given me a more holistic view of my students and their growth, and it’s helped me to reflect on my service as a corps member,” Kelly says. “For myself, I’m usually more focused on belonging and active engagement. It’s forced me to reflect, which is something I don’t usually do. And it’s given me a new way to talk about the needs of my students with my team.”

The near-peer relationships between students and AmeriCorps members, who are older than the schoolchildren they serve but young enough to relate to their perspective, indicate that corps members may be uniquely positioned to promote persistence, belonging, connectedness and other key social-emotional competencies. Studies have shown that when students feel connected to at least one significant adult in their education – a teacher, guidance counselor, or in the case of City Year, AmeriCorps members who serve as mentors, tutors and role models, for example – they experience greater engagement and satisfaction with school and can learn more and perform better academically.

Because social-emotional skills are critical to student academic success and positive long-term outcomes, City Year gathers data and tracks student growth in these key areas. AmeriCorps members like Kelly use a variety of tools throughout the school year, including a norm-referenced rating scale called the DESSA, or Devereux Student Strengths Assessment, and analyze student and teacher surveys to measure impact and figure out how City Year’s interventions can become even more effective. Results have been encouraging, with students at many City Year schools more likely to report a positive relationship with an adult at school who was not a teacher and teachers also reporting an improved school climate.

Fourth grade teacher Katie Ernst, who works alongside Kelly every day in her classroom, says that having a City Year AmeriCorps member who is attuned to her students’ academic and social emotional needs and strengths is invaluable.

“The students feel very affirmed by Kelly,” Ms. Ernst said. “They feel heard and accepted. Having two adults in the classroom who are both really in tune with the students helps them feel cared for and nurtured and loved.”

These strong relationships also help Kelly provide critical academic interventions that help students persevere, stay on track and tackle challenging material.

“It’s a good balance,” says Ms. Ernst. “When I have to be strict with a student, Kelly is able to get in a smile and a kind word. We are a united front.”

Because of schedule changes during the past school year, Ms. Ernst was assigned two fourth grade classes for several subjects, including English Language Arts, instead of one. She worried about how she could get to know all of her students well and meet all of their needs. Having Kelly in the classroom with her has made all the difference, she said.
“This year, I’m not able to connect with all the students the way I normally would,” Ernst said. “But Kelly has been able to foster relationships with all the kids. They look to her for assurance. If a student is struggling, it can be challenging to stop the whole class to address that. But because Kelly is there and can give them individual help, they feel supported by her, and I can continue teaching.”

One spring morning, a student became upset when sharing a story, and began to cry. Rather than disrupting class and losing valuable instructional time, Kelly was able to take the student out into the hallway and spend time with her, figuring out what was going on and helping her to process and recover. In a few minutes, the student was able to rejoin the class and re-engage in learning.

At 8:30 a.m. the bell rings. The regular school day is about to start. Jasmine, Maria and Rachel pass in their strips of construction paper, thank Kelly and say they’ll see her tomorrow.

Kelly pauses for a moment to read through some of the girls’ notes of appreciation to one another and to her. Tonight she will put the finishing touches on their scrapbooks.

How do I feel like I belong? “Because my friends give me respect,” wrote Jasmine.

What I like most about Morning Class: “Feeling safe and comfortable,” wrote Maria.

What did you learn about someone in your group this year? “That no matter what, you will always help me,” wrote Rachel.

* The names of Kelly’s students have been changed to protect their privacy.

Back to top

Spotlight on City Year New York

Ryan CottonRyan Cotton City Year
Co-Chair, City Year New York Board
Managing Director, Bain Capital Private Equity

Finding the heart in the data: a Red Jacket Society Story

On the 42nd floor of Manhattan’s former IBM building, Bain Capital’s quiet, well-stocked conference room looks out on a cold, rainy midtown hidden by clouds. When Ryan Cotton appears at the door, the space is transformed. Just back in town after another long, food-deprived flight, Ryan tosses his bag into a corner, rips open some chips and slips into a bright red City Year jacket. Despite the jetlag, Ryan Cotton is filled with enthusiasm, fired up and ready to talk about one of his foremost passions — data.

As a Managing Director at Bain Capital, one of the world’s leading private investment firms and a longstanding City Year supporter, Ryan leads their North American consumer, travel, leisure and hospitality, and real estate investment efforts. TOMS Shoes, Canada Goose, and a new luxury cruise line with Richard Branson and Virgin comprise his latest deals. He also serves as a Board Member of City Year New York, where he is Chair of the Red Jacket Society.

He became aware of City Year when he moved to Boston after receiving his MBA from Stanford. He saw City Year’s red jackets all over the city. Once he joined Bain Capital, he learned more about the organization, which led him to get involved. Ultimately, it was City Year’s belief in mentoring, focus on education, and a data-based approach that led him to invest. That City Year provides near peer mentors at exactly the right moment in a student’s life resonates with Ryan. Growing up in Texas, he had his own “big village” of people who had mentored him.

City Year’s focus on education is very much in line with his belief that education is an equalizer. “There are so many social problems, so many things that we’re trying to address from crime and drug dependence to unemployment, income inequality, class mobility – all sorts of domestic challenges. When you really start to analyze any one of those, you realize that education is the silver bullet that gets to the root of it. With solving one crisis you can solve a number of downstream crises. It seems to me that if you’re going to start investing in people, investing in America, investing in our future, you have to do that at the educational level because it solves all the symptoms that come later.”

What he is most animated about is City Year’s use of data. “We at Bain Capital live data. We just dig and dig and dig until we find the data that gives you conviction to lean into an investment. That’s what City Year does, too.” He appreciates City Year’s approach: “Let’s measure, let’s refine, let’s continually improve, and let’s do so in a data-driven way.”

And Ryan also touts that City Year’s data-based approach is generating results. A third party study of its impact found that schools that partner with City Year were two-to-three times more likely to improve school-wide proficiency rates in English Language Arts and math than schools with similar demographic and performance profiles. (See it covered in Education Week, “City Year Schools Twice as Likely to See Math, English Boosts, Study Finds,” June 9, 2015.)

Well-versed in City Year’s methodology, Ryan points to a study by Johns Hopkins University that shows students who are at risk of dropping out can be identified as early as elementary school, using three early warning indicators (EWI). City Year refers to these as the ABCs: A, poor attendance; B, disruptive behavior; and C, course failure in math and English. A student who shows just one of these signs as early as sixth grade has only a 25% percent chance of graduating high school on time with their peers. However, if a student reaches the 10th grade on track and on time, he or she has a 75% chance of graduating.

“The notion that you keep a student on track and on time through the ninth grade and they have a three times greater chance of graduating on time is incredible.” says Ryan, who finds data like this to be impossible to argue with.

Rukhshana Tuli & Parth Patel
City Year New York Alumni & Red Jacket Society Ambassadors

Newtown High School in the Elmhurst section of Queens, one of New York City’s most diverse neighborhoods, is a massive structure that covers an entire city block. It sits prominently among crowded houses, thriving bodegas, and Korean eateries. Established in 1897, it was built in the Flemish Renaissance Revival style, a throwback to the Dutch founders of the city. The stone face castle-like building is complete with stepped gables and a 169-foot tower with four turrets and a cupola.

Inside, the classrooms tell the story of an era long ago. The woodwork is hand-crafted, the windows massive and the ceilings 15 feet high. As homage to its roots, the school has maintained some of the original brass doorknobs.

The history isn’t merely in the building. Many prominent graduates once walked the hallways: cosmetic giant Estee Lauder, comedian Don Rickles, NY Stock Exchange President Richard Grasso, actress Zoe Saldana, Mezzo-Soprano opera star Rise Stevens, actor Carol O’Connor, rocker Gene Simmons, a New York Supreme Court Justice and several NBA players, among many others.

In the past, Newtown students always came from the neighborhood, which in the 1950’s was primarily Greek, Italian and Jewish. Today, the nearly 2,000 students comprise a broader mix of racial and ethnic backgrounds, with more than 60% identifying as Hispanic or Latino and nearly a quarter identifying as Asian-American. Twenty-eight percent are English Language Learners. While many of Newtown’s students come from the local borough of Queens, some students commute more than 90 minutes each way – from Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

On a recent rainy Tuesday, a dozen ninth grade teachers and a few City Year AmeriCorps members come into a classroom, open up their laptops, and talk among themselves as they prepare for their weekly Early Warning Indicator (EWI) meeting. As the meeting begins, their attention turns to their screens as they scan student data for lack of progress, behavior challenges, and flags. In all the rows and rows of data, they hunt for what might be impacting their students’ performance, and discuss what they can do about it. Their goal is to make sure no student is off-track, or becomes invisible.

EWI meetings are held every Tuesday and are attended by ninth grade teachers, City Year AmeriCorps Members, Communities in Schools and John’s Hopkins Talent Development Secondary.

Today’s EWI meeting examines six students, one at a time. The meeting leader presents an overview of the student, hones in on their attendance rate, the number of classes missed, homework, grades, and any behavior issues, and then opens it up to discussion. The goal is to set a plan to support the student and eventually get them off the focus list.

City Year AmeriCorps members play a unique role in EWI meetings. Because of the “near peer” nature of their role and the time they spend with students every day in the classroom, the lunchroom and through afterschool, City Year AmeriCorps members are privy to valuable insight into the students’ lives. For example, it was a corps member who figured out that one student who needed tutoring never went to afterschool because his mother needed him to care for his younger siblings until she got home from work. This then offers teachers insight into the things that may be negatively impacting that student’s performance in their classroom.

This morning, ninth grade Math teacher Jennifer Hanley sits up front. After considering cultural anthropology, she built a career in children’s library science and then taught college before getting certified as a Special Education teacher. Now she’s qualified to teach all the core classes, but prefers math and science. She’s had City Year in her classroom her entire public school teaching career, three years.

Further to the back, amid a group of City Year AmeriCorps members, sits Rukhshana Tuli, who grew up in the neighborhood. After college, she came back to serve with City Year. She was placed in Newtown High for her service year, continued with another year as Team Leader, and for the last two years, has served as the City Year Impact Manager. She’s proud of her community, her school and her services. She believes that it’s a good way to show current students that it’s good to give back. Having grown up in this neighborhood also helps her understand and empathize with the needs of the community and its students.

One large part of Rukhshana’s role is to review student data including grades, attendance, and behavior issues. These data points help determine who will be placed on the focus list and why. It’s her job to continually consult with teachers like Ms. Hanley and the principal.

The hour they spent together this morning has given them the opportunity to discuss over a half a dozen students, share their knowledge of those students’ performance, and assign champions who will help guide these students to get back on track.

In Newton High School, there are nine City Year AmeriCorps members, one Team Leader, and one Impact Manager. Each supports English Language Arts, math, science and social studies classes, and specializes in two-to-four subjects. The corps members provide academic and social emotional supports to the entire class. Additionally, each corps member has a focus list of between 10 and 15 students who are selected to receive additional support, such as one-on-one tutoring.

The City Year team also offers school-wide activities. Each day starts with a morning greeting, which welcomes students to school. They also produce a regular parents’ newsletter to keep them up to date about all of City Year’s activities. During spring break, the team hosts a Leadership Academy, which offers academic support and leadership training. They also conduct student tours to area colleges and businesses, including Columbia University and Microsoft, a City Year sponsor.

City Year AmeriCorps member Parth Patel is a thoughtful, soft-spoken New Jersey native who plans to attend medical school after his service year. Only a few months into his service, he continually works with Rukhshana to track and interpret student progress so that he can adjust his efforts based on his students’ needs. Parth lights up whenever he talks about them, especially when he talks about Adam.

In his short time, Parth has developed a relationship with Adam*, whose grades and test scores from eighth grade placed him on Parth’s focus list for both math and English Language Arts. Adam, who has a secret passion for reptiles, never raises his hand in class and is very quiet. Parth enjoys bonding with him through their shared sense of humor. Parth’s calm and relaxed style in class works well to help Adam stay focused and learn.

Though his relationship with Adam is still new and Parth describes it as a “work in progress,” it has given him his most rewarding moments as a corps member. One area Parth is especially proud of is Adam’s performance in math where he more than doubled a test grade, going from a 34 to an 80, as a result of their tutoring sessions. Another was when Adam correctly answered a question about binomials, a subject he had been studying with Parth, when called on by the teacher.

Parth works with Ms. Hanley’s last period. A large class with 35 students, it has the energy of teenagers ready to bounce out of school. Ms. Hanley has to put a lot of time into behavior management with this class, and finds Parth a “huge, huge help.” She always enjoys having City Year in her classroom and counts on tapping corps members to serve as sounding boards and to debrief with her after classes.

Rukhshana works closely with Parth to understand his students’ academic and social and emotional learning needs. They do this by reviewing with student performance data. “I meet with corps members on a bi-weekly basis for a data check-in where we talk about how much time they’re getting with their students, what progress they’re seeing, and changes they need to make.” With these insights, corps members prepare to have interventions and choose which content to focus on with which student, like Parth working with Adam on binomials.

Rukhshana is devoted to helping her City Year AmeriCorps team at Newtown achieve progress with their students. She doesn’t want any student to slip through the cracks. She sees the value in near-peer mentoring and reflects back to her older brother. He was once a student at Newtown High School when there weren’t any City Year AmeriCorps members. Her brother had a tough time making it to graduation. “I used to always think … what if he had a mentor that he just looked up to, and he could speak to, or could connect with him? It may have been a lot better.” Eventually, he joined the Air Force, which helped him build a very successful life.

Through City Year’s school database, Rukhshana can not only see Parth’s focus list student progress, but her whole focus list portfolio. With this information readily on hand, she can ensure her team is applying their training correctly and that each student is being served effectively.

“Rukhshana talks about data all the time and I think it is super valuable. There’s no other way,” says Parth. “It’s great to have a database where we can input data and be able to look back at what we’ve done.” Parth’s plan for life after City Year includes a career in medicine. Based on his experience as a City Year AmeriCorps member, he’s now considering ways to incorporate teaching into his career, possibly seeking out teaching hospital opportunities.

Parth is not the only one Rukhshana has shown the value of tracking and analyzing student data. She spends a lot of time helping to build a balanced understanding of data among her team. “If we’re really invested in the students’ long-term success, and we want them to be incredible adults who can make their own decisions and can choose whatever they want to do, then our approach has to be a lot more than day to day, friendly conversation. That will last through that one day, but you’re not building any long-lasting skills {in the student}. You only do that through evaluation of your work.”

After working with so many students during her years at Newtown, Rukhshana knows the benefit of tracking student progress, but also is convinced that “data is a means to an end. It is not an end in itself. Data is a tool that helps to effect change.”

Rukhshana, Parth, and teachers like Ms. Hanley are supported by Principal John Ficalora, who was also a student at Newtown High School decades ago. Once he finished college he came back as a student teacher, which led to his career as a math teacher, administrator and now as principal. He details a long list of everything City Year does for Newtown High School from in-class support and teacher appreciation days to after school tutoring, report card conferencing and Morning Greeting.

“There’s no magic wand, but [City Year is] doing what we don’t do. It’s not that we don’t do it because we don’t know it exists, or we don’t do it because we don’t care. But we don’t do it because it’s just not possible to do everything. There are 170 kids [per teacher] and it doesn’t necessarily get done. City Year adds this extra person who is not just able to do it, but cares about doing it.”

Mr. Ficalora remembers when he was a boy going to Newtown, his parents reviewed his report card with him and “praised me where I should be praised, and encouraged me where I needed that.” Similar practices are in place today. After each report card, every student at Newtown meets with an adult from the school to discuss their scores. The participating adults at these Report Card Conferences can be a teacher, administrator, guidance counselor, or City Year AmeriCorps member.

Throughout a two-day period, all students come to the school library with their report card and get paired with an adult. The adult talks with them about their scores and together they set goals for the next marking period in six to eight weeks. The plan might call for the student to make an extra effort to come to school on time, or to go to tutoring. At the next report card conference, they’ll measure the student’s progress against that plan. This experience enables students to look at their own data and learn how to use it as a tool for their own success.

Mr. Ficalora sits at the head of a large conference table under the gaze of an antique grandfather clock given to the school as a gift back when it was the most accurate time-keeping technology. Over the years, he has gotten used to the pendulum swinging inside the clock tower, setting off a chime sequence every quarter hour. He points out an architectural model of the school done by students, complete with “We Tower Above the Rest,” the school motto.

Now in its 118th year, Newtown High School has always been an anchor for the local community, serving as a beacon of progress and hope to local students and their families. “We’re always thinking of new ways to try to improve what we’re doing,” affirms Mr. Ficalora.

This year marks the school’s fifth year of partnership with City Year. “I believe that City Year does make a big difference,” he says sincerely, noting remarkable progress last year when there was a 68% reduction in students failing English and math. “They’re changing people’s lives in ways they don’t realize.”

* Name changed to protect privacy

Back to top

“There is a relentless improvement philosophy that I really like about City Year. It is a continual journey to find the next better version of City Year.”

Ryan Cotton City Year
Ryan Cotton Co-Chair, City Year New York Board

Spotlight on City Year Miami

Ana Mari Ortega
City Year Board of Trustees
Founder & Creative Director, Ana Mari Ortega LLC
Director, Ortega Family Foundation

Ana Mari Ortega, City Year National Board of Trustees Member and Co-Chair of Miami’s Red Jacket Society, is making cafecitos. The super sweet, industrial strength Cuban coffee is served at most restaurants in Miami (often in thimble-sized Styrofoam cups), but Ortega serves her batch in miniature glass mugs. She is warm and funny, and at 29, a delightful combination of confidence and enthusiasm. She talks and jokes as the coffee brews.

It’s easy to imagine Ortega sitting across the table from a potential donor and how difficult it would be to resist her good sense and down-to-earth charm. As a member of City Year Miami’s board – and now as the chair of Miami’s Red Jacket Society – she’s attended two-dozen pitch meetings with prospects over the last several months. At some point in those conversations with donors, Ortega often poses a hypothetical question: “Can you imagine how different Miami would be if there was a 95 percent graduation rate?” She then pauses for a beat: “It would be transformative.” As a life-long Miami resident, Ortega is using her time and resources to transform Miami into a world-class city. She’s eager to make it known as much for its art and culture and technology, as the splashy clubs and high-end boutiques of South Beach.

A designer by trade, Ortega has her own line of elegant handbags and jewelry, called simply Ana Mari Ortega. She often has beads and materials left over at the end of a season. After a visit to Madison Middle School with City Year, she scheduled a return trip to run a jewelry-making workshop for kids in the afterschool program. She says she was amazed by the students’ creativity and heartened to see their budding entrepreneurial spirits: a handful told her they planned to make and sell bracelets to earn extra money. What stuck with her, though, was a lingering sadness from a feeling of disbelief she sensed in students. “They [the students] were like, why are you doing this? Why are you spending time with us,” she says. “They seemed sort of shocked that someone would do something special for them.”

Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools (MDCPS) and a City Year champion, likes to remind people that many of Miami’s students have never been to the beach or swum in the ocean. He relies on this dichotomy between students’ lived reality and the picture of Miami most people have in their minds to deliver a message about the challenges students face. Ortega’s experience at Madison Middle had a similar effect, deepening her commitment to City Year Miami and to building community more broadly. “City Year has taken me to parts of town that I had no reason to ever go to,” she says. “That shows me how big our community is, and how limited in scope our lives can be.”

Superintendent of Miami-Dade County and City Year Champion Alberto Carvalho

Ortega gives to City Year Miami and other organizations involved with community building and children, including Habitat for Humanity, through her family’s foundation – the Ortega Family Foundation – which also gives generous scholarships to Miami-area high school students. The Foundation’s most recent grant to City Year is a $300,000 matching gift, delivered over three years. This makes her conversations with potential Red Jacket Society members even more powerful: when she asks for a gift, she also guarantees she’ll match it.

City Year’s literacy work, and in Miami, its efforts to support English language learners, is one of the things she feels most passionate about (and is the programmatic focus of this month’s digital story below). Native Spanish speakers can get by easily in Miami, without ever learning English, because all of life’s necessities – the grocery store, restaurants, a doctor’s visit – can be conducted in Spanish. “Not knowing the language [English] can be really limiting, in terms of jobs and opportunities,” Ortega says.

In Ortega’s family, education has always been a priority. Her parents were born in Cuba, but left the island as infants for Puerto Rico during the Cuban Revolution. Both families eventually immigrated to Miami. For years, Ortega’s father has led Sazón Goya, a subsidiary of Goya that produces the Latin-flavored seasonings that are a staple in millions of kitchens (Latino and otherwise). But Ortega never felt any pressure to join the family business. If anything, she says, he encouraged her to be independent.

“Education was always important to my family, because life is unpredictable,” she says. “One day everything could change – education is the one thing you can take with you.” It’s also one of the only things no one can ever take away. The here-today-gone-tomorrow mindset isn’t unique to Ortega’s family; it’s a sensibility common in many immigrant communities, “especially those that began in political exile.” And Ortega is quick to point out that it doesn’t necessarily have a doomsday connotation. If education really is the one thing you can take with you, maybe it also means kids City Year serves can leave behind some of the hardship they’ve encountered in their lives.

“When I look at the kids corps members work with, I think what if they’re able to graduate high school, go to the right school, and get a job?” she says. “I think about how different their lives would be if they don’t graduate. And that to me is so exciting – that you can transform someone’s life for the better.”

Maria Farias
City Year Miami Alum & Red Jacket Society Ambassador

Maria Farias, a City Year Miami AmeriCorps member, serves in Mr. Dido Balla’s English as a Second Language (ESL) classroom at Booker T. Washington High School. A recent graduate of Florida Atlantic University (FAU), this year, she’s learned to celebrate her students’ little victories.

Last fall, Jason, from Honduras, struggled to stay in class for the full 90-minute period-the formality of Miami’s school system was as foreign to him as his new city. Shy and withdrawn, he refused to even try speaking. Then, one day, he stood up in class and said “Thanks to you, I can speak in front of a whole class in English.” When sisters Caty and Leidi (pronounced lady) arrived from Colombia three years ago, they didn’t speak a word of English: even the question “What’s your name?” seemed too hard. Now, Caty writes essays and Leidi talks about her plans to become a pediatrician.

Farias, as her students call her, is the fourth City Year AmeriCorps member to serve in Mr. Balla’s classroom, where the most prominent decoration is a homemade banner, in bubble letters, that reads, “The more you read, the more you know.” Goals for students are also written in neat block letters on poster board tacked up to the wall: “Move up 1 grade level in reading, become proficient writers and become charismatic speakers in standard English.” It was an ideal placement for Farias, who is originally from Peru and struggled to learn English when she arrived in Miami as a 10 year old. “I hated English,” she says, recalling her first year or two in Florida.

Mr. Balla was himself an AmeriCorps member, with Teach For America. He talks quickly, kindly and with a sense of urgency, as if there will never be enough time for all he has to do. (Originally from Cameroon, in West Africa, he, too, was an English language learner once upon a time.) At Booker T., about 20 percent of the student population is enrolled in the ESL program (it’s close to a third, if one includes students who have recently exited the program). During any given week, close to 200 students cycle through his classroom. The majority of those students are newcomers, having arrived to the United States less than a year ago, and an overwhelming percent – about 90 – are Spanish speakers, the majority from Central America.

Balla believes his students too often perceive a direct relationship between their proficiency in English and their ability to perform, and “therefore think they aren’t intelligent.” His entire methodology seems directed at demolishing that mode of thinking. He knows how important it is for kids to feel like they have a place to belong and adults they can trust; kids stop by his room, just to say hello. In the structure of the school’s ESL program, Balla is the father figure, his colleague, Ms. Leiva, is the mother, and Farias is the “emancipated older sister who is a good role model.”

Indeed, to many kids, the team is like family. Caty and Leidi, the sisters from Colombia, recently moved to a far-off neighborhood in a different school zone. Their mom works multiple jobs and couldn’t get the girls back and forth, so Balla or Leiva drive Caty and Leidi home each day to ensure the girls can still attend Booker T.

Ms. Farias plays a critical role in his class, as someone students can not only learn from, but talk to. “It’s one kid, but they have a whole life, right?” Balla says. In a class of 30 students, he doesn’t always have enough time to give individual attention to every student who needs it, but with Farias as his partner, they’re able to connect with many more students. “She’ll push kids to find out what’s really going on,” whether it’s understanding a lesson or learning why a student missed class.

Farias spends hours with students each week, helping newcomers master the basics – phonics, colors, letters, numbers – and tutoring students who are more proficient, with vocabulary, reading comprehension and critical thinking. She also spends a lot of time just talking to kids and listening to their stories. Many of her students crossed the U.S. border on foot or had to sleep on top of a train to get into the country. So many of them are alone. “They come here and they want to make it – they want to get a job and learn the language and make friends and make their parents proud,” she says. It’s easy to forget that among all the adult issues these students are juggling, they’re also just high school kids, who care about high school stuff: friends, grades, fashion, music, soccer.

Learning students’ stories hasn’t been easy, emotionally, but it makes Farias even more invested – and puts her in an even better position – to help kids learn, because she’s earned their trust. “You can’t really promise it’s going to be ok, because you don’t know. But you can tell them that you are there for them, because that’s what you can promise. I’m going to be here for you and I’m going to try to help you as best that I can.”

Back to top

Believe in the power of mentors: Spotlight on City Year Washington, DC

Chris Kiple
Red Jacket Society Member

Chris Kiple believes in the power of mentors: it’s what he credits with his success and it’s the part of City Year’s model that he connects to most. Kiple tries to do something for City Year every day, whether it’s making an introduction, attending an event or sharing information about City Year with a colleague. He’s excited about being a member of the Red Jacket Society for the ties it gives him to the broader City Year community. “I thought it was important to be a mentor now,” he says. “Honestly, writing a check is the least significant part of what we are doing – it’s much more about being active and sharing in the mission.”

Kiple has worked as a fundraiser, a lobbyist, a corporate attorney and a small business owner (he co-founded the Foggy Bottom Grocery – FoBoGro – in D.C.). For the past two years, he’s been working in private wealth management, guiding the investment strategies and philanthropic portfolios of high-net worth individuals. He’s warm and charismatic, happy to share his story.

Born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska, Kiple has called Washington, D.C. home since college brought him to the east coast (he has a BA and JD from George Washington University). In addition to serving as the chair of City Year Washington D.C.’s associate board, he also sits on the Jete Society Steering Committee of the Washington Ballet – he likes to say that City Year is reality, and that the Ballet, the arts, is a break from reality. He’s passionate about both.

“Education is an equalizer,” he says about his commitment to City Year. “Education can show people what they’re capable of, it can create opportunities and connect them to the broader world – and when they feel connected, they feel a need to improve and engage with it.” The sense of community City Year creates, he says, is built on feelings of mutual respect and responsibility, especially among the teams of young AmeriCorps members who share goals and experiences during their year of service. He admires corps members’ ability to translate into action the empathy they have for students in high-need schools.

Connecting to the world, literally, is another of Kiple’s passions. He’s visited 80 countries so far, an experience that’s opened him up to all different kinds of people and ways of life. “Travel helps you find a way to make the best of every moment,” he says. He got the travel bug from one of his earliest mentors, Dan Noble, an orthopedist in Nebraska. When he was in middle school, Kiple broke three bones in four weeks and Noble started joking that they could talk outside the office. Kiple says his now life-long friendship with Noble made him realize there were potential mentors everywhere: “I’ve been lucky to have dozens of mentors who have been willing to share their stories and their lessons with me.”

He believes City Year AmeriCorps members are doing for students what Noble did for him: exposing them to opportunities and inspiring them to feel excited about their futures. “City Year is always a big bright spot in the whole school,” he says. “The red jackets bring a sense of comfort and trust and hope – I feel it, and I know the kids feel it, too.”

A City Year partner: Kelly Miller Middle School

The day at Kelly Miller Middle School begins with morning announcements. Two students take turns speaking into the microphone of the school’s PA system. One student recites the school creed and the pledge of allegiance, the other reports what the cafeteria is serving for lunch and uses the word of the day in a sentence, spelling bee-style: “DeQuan’s cookie consumption grows exponentially during the holiday season.”

Kelly Miller Middle School is about four miles due east of the U.S. Capitol – a straight shot down East Capitol Street, across the Anacostia River and almost to the Maryland border. There is no one name associated with the school’s neighborhood, though it draws its 500 students from Deanwood, Burrville, Grant Park, Lincoln Heights and Fairmont Heights. The school, which was built just 10 years ago, is a gleaming structure of brick and glass. It sits a hundred yards back from a busy street in a mixed-income residential neighborhood, where the streets are lined with modest brick row houses. Of the school’s sixth, seventh and eighth graders, 97 percent are African-American, and 99 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

This school, like the majority of schools City Year partners with, has struggled academically. Though the school’s performance has improved in recent years, it remains among the lowest 40 performing schools in the district. Last year, for example, only 35 percent of students had mastered grade-level standards, or were considered “proficient,” on the D.C. assessment, a score that demonstrates significant progress: the proficiency rate has nearly doubled since 2010.

Abdullah Zaki, the principal at Kelly Miller since 2010, has created a strict culture around student behavior that’s resulted in a very orderly building: students, in their maroon and khaki uniforms, are expected to walk in straight lines in the hallways, stay seated during lunch and remain silent during transition periods. Teachers and staff seem to have a sixth sense for trouble – when groups of students congregate in the hall they appear to kindly but firmly keep kids moving along. “No, baby, you go on and get to class,” a teacher says to a student. Two other schools in the neighborhood were closed this year, so many students are new Kelly Miller and its culture. Principal Zaki relies on the City Year team to reinforce his high expectations, but he’s also given corps members the space to celebrate positive behavior.

Why is Social Emotional Learning important?

Sara Duckery, one of three social workers on staff at Kelly Miller, has one-on-one appointments with 26 students each week, in between adjudicating all manner of adolescent drama. Her office is a room off a hallway on the first floor. There is paper piled on her desk and a puffy winter coat tossed on top of her chair. The space has the feeling of being constantly interrupted and returned to: when she pushes away from her desk, the chair catches her momentum and rolls away, pens stay uncapped; hers is the opposite of a desk job. Much of what she sees – he-said-she-said controversies and arguments between friends – are similar to what you’d see at any middle school. But there’s an additional layer of complication that has to do with what many students encounter in their daily lives.

It shouldn’t be surprising that children who grow up in poverty have more stress in their lives on average than children who are raised in middle class or affluent communities. Research suggests that that the stress kids encounter – whether its having extra responsibility (for a younger sibling, for example), witnessing violence or being hungry – can alter the physical development of their brains, making it harder for them to fully develop skills such as concentration, emotional regulation, trusting other people and feeling optimistic about their futures. But those same researchers have also determined that it’s possible to help kids overcome the stress inherent in poverty, by supporting them to hone skills associated with social-emotional development.

“You would assume that someone in sixth grade knows that they should look someone in the eye when they talk to you, but that’s not always the case,” Duckery explains. It’s just one small example of a social-emotional skill that corps members help students learn.

Duckery notes that SEL growth isn’t something that happens in a week or two, or even over a few months, though she has seen positive change over time: “You could see students changing and communicating and talking more because they had a City Year they could go to once or twice a week and talk about what they wanted to talk about and feel more comfortable.”

Building relationships: One student at a time

Every City Year team has a dedicated space in their schools to charge their phones, stow their backpacks and stash their lunches. The Kelly Miller team has a large space (about 20’ x 30’) a few doors down from the cafeteria. The room has good natural light, high ceilings and posters with the team’s goals taped up on the walls. Stacked at the end of one of several worktables are photocopies of Chapter 1 from “How Children Succeed.” Throughout the day, kids stop by to say hello or ask for help, and it seems at least one corps member is always sipping coffee or microwaving a cheap cup of ramen noodles.

At Kelly Miller, the City Year team dedicates focused time to help kids develop SEL skills during a club that meets at lunch. Once a week, for eight weeks, corps members guide students through a 30-minute activity that introduces students to concepts like empathy, teamwork and optimism. It’s a time to connect with students on a level that’s not academic, and to build trust outside of the classroom setting. There are ten lunch clubs at Kelly Miller, some as large as six students and some as small as just one, which means during any given week, at least 60 students are participating in the program. At Kelly Miller, nearly 30% of the school population will participate in a lunch club during the year.

Corps members value the time they get to spend with students at lunch, even though they admit how challenging it can be to get a 12-year old to understand a concept as complex as empathy. And often times, what’s in the lesson plan gets pushed aside for something else on students’ minds – whether it’s something that happened in the neighborhood over the weekend or an issue in the news.

City Year provides hours of training in how to guide these conversations, but sometimes corps members walk away worried that they aren’t doing enough, and they say it’s hard not to bring home some of the things kids tell them: one eighth grader told a corps member she thought she was pregnant, another student said he didn’t want to be the next Michael Brown. Corps members alert the school’s social workers to serious issues (including pregnancy), but in the moment, they do their best to relate to students with caring and respect. Over time, they hope the trust built over lunch will transfer to improved results in the classroom.

Back to top

Learn more about Red Jacket Society

Contact us to learn more about Red Jacket Society's members and mission.

Contact us
National Strategic Partners
National Partners