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Does City Year Make a Difference?
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Such a loaded question, right? Especially if you are or ever have been involved with City Year. I’m positive that plenty of ideas came to mind for anyone that falls under that umbrella.  But it’s a question I ask myself every day. And if someone had asked me at any time last year, I would have told them, “Of course! I don’t work 9 hour days to NOT make a difference.” What I have learned throughout my Team Leader year, however, is that it is a bit more complicated than that. And that complication all started for me at Basic Training Academy.

Asked to pair up with another AmeriCorps Member during a training session at BTA and with a specific idea of with whom I wanted to work, I was rushed by another ACM and asked if I could be her partner. Definitely not one to decline a specific request and having already had a few engaging conversations with her, I couldn’t say no. I’m glad I didn’t, as it was the beginning of a wonderful friendship.

We walked backstage and sat down. With tears in her eyes, she asked me whether or not I believe City Year makes an actual difference. At this point, I was still figuring out my leadership style and had been incredibly skeptical about some things City Year-related. So had she, as she had witnessed some questionable interactions between staff or TLs and ACMs and began actually reflecting on everything that was being thrown at her in training. It was a question I gave her my honest opinion on and have revisited over and over again throughout the year with my own teammates. Though interesting, it’s a question that one cannot answer with 100% certainty.

You see, it all depends on the angle one takes. Quantitative research says yes, schools with a City Year team perform better on state assessments than those similar schools without a CY team. Not to say we are the sole cause, but high school graduation rates are the highest they have ever been, and we are an organization that aims to put kids on the path to graduation, right?  When the #makebetterhappen ripples email goes out every Friday, we see tweets and photos highlighting the every day difference our ACMs make. That HAS to settle the question. Of course we make a difference! Right?

When a prospective ACM researches City Year, they are bound to come across “Give a year, change the world.” Pretty ambitious, but we’re idealists and have been warned how the four civic dangers can endanger our idealism. To our credit, we’re shifting to #makebetterhappen, but the old slogan still makes an impact with our ACMs, and the day-to-day stresses of the job disrupts the expectations of those ACMs.

Some come to City Year expecting to change the world in their corps year. “Changing the world” might mean being the reason a student does well enough in school to go to college and eventually climb their way out of poverty. It could mean to another that they’re going to help turn around a failing school because “maybe they just haven’t tried this idea yet.” With some of the ACMs I help lead, it usually means expecting to see a student change drastically after a month of working with them. I am sure other TLs have a similar experience.

Throughout a year of service, the experience of our students is something we learn much about - one of our students in first period is falling asleep because they worked until midnight the last three nights, another in fourth can’t come to retake a test during lunch because it might be the only meal they eat that day, and one in seventh cannot stay focused at all because it’s the last period of the day. Not to mention, we learn much about how they experience the education system. We come to learn that yeah, some teachers do inflate grades and that some of our students in the ninth grade are lacking skills they should have learned in the fourth.  “How are graduation rates the highest they’ve ever been?” we ask ourselves. We come to realize that it’s going to take a lot longer to make an impact with our students. That’s when the skepticism starts to creep in.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with believing one person can change the world. But this work is tough for so many reasons. I have no doubt that on any particular day we have a good interaction with our students, it makes for a better world they’re living in. Having multiple days and weeks with those positive experiences most definitely make for a better environment to be in. Maybe that’s what changing the world and making a difference actually means. For our students, we might be the first adult they’ve felt comfortable enough to go to when they’re having a bad day or just need to talk. Academically, our task is daunting. But if we approach our work with the mindset that working with our students every day on skills they needed to learn a while back will help them grow, we might just make a difference. And if we decide to build City Year while we’re here and go on to focus on systemic issues that affect our students after we leave, we can really make a difference. We might even change the world; Overnight and over ten months might not be completely realistic, but we can do it day-to-day and, eventually, commit ourselves to a lifetime of this kind of work. If we look at it with this long view, we might just make better happen. And that is the point of our service.

Sergio Plaza is serving as Team Leader with City Year San Antonio. He attended the University of Texas, majoring in sociology and government. This is his second year with City Year. He has been accepted to Teach for America in San Antonio and believes he has a responsibility to pull his students through the door of opportunity he himself was able to walk through.