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Trusting relationships fuel City Year’s work in Memphis

Students, families and communities were hit hard as schools across the country closed in the wake of COVID-19 in March 2020.

One of City Year’s newest sites, Memphis, had only been serving local schools for a few years when the pandemic hit. Yet in that relatively short span of time, AmeriCorps members and staff had already forged strong relationships with each other and their partner teachers and principals, which allowed room for innovative approaches and deeper collaboration to counter the stress, uncertainty and disruption of this time.

City Year Memphis morning greeting for students

A new case study highlights how three City Year sites, including Memphis, were able to quickly adapt to meet local needs and find new ways to serve students, teachers and families last spring. The study explores how a foundation of trust and consistent relationships fueled City Year’s approach during the pandemic. City Year Memphis was selected for the study because of its focus and expertise in integrating social-emotional supports with both staff and students.

Establishing positive relationships at City Year Memphis

How has City Year Memphis established trust and positive relationships before and during this global health crisis? Hannah McFarland, director of education and learning, and Brandy McCray, service quality manager, describe how they and their team have supported their AmeriCorps members, school partners, students and one another as they navigated the early days of the pandemic and its impact on their community.

Focus on social-emotional skills and tools

Hannah McFarland (HM): From the beginning, we’ve been very intentional about integrating social-emotional supports at every level of the organization, for our staff, for our AmeriCorps members and for our students.

What does that look like? Well, for our corps members, we take corps voice very seriously. We’re intentional about taking the survey data they provide and responding to it. We also seek out other ways to get feedback from the corps throughout the year.

Brandy [McCray] creates opportunities to lead during the learning and development sessions the corps has on a regular basis and ensures that our corps members feel a sense of agency to make change happen. This helps them to feel socially and emotionally supported.

When the pandemic hit, we purchased additional household supplies for them so they would feel cared for and not have to worry about covering basic needs. We had daily “town hall” sessions to share what was going on, take their questions and make space to express their feelings.

Brandy McCray (BM): One thing that helped us support the social-emotional well-being of our AmeriCorps members was that our whole site had already transitioned to using Microsoft Teams as a way to communicate with one another—that tool really helped us connect in real time and keep each other informed. Teams became essential once our in-person service switched to virtual service and distance learning and we were able to do online trainings and share information.

We hired mental health specialists to support corps members for the first five weeks after COVID-19 hit, recognizing that period was stressful for everyone.

Our site also participated in a pilot with Search Institute where AmeriCorps members were more deeply trained in the power of developmental relationships and used the framework for their own growth as well as their work with students. This experience helped them to share with us how well the site was meeting the corps needs and also helped us to “share power” as that’s part of the framework.

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Learn more about the Search Institute pilot in Columbus.

Supporting students and teachers

BM: In terms of how our focus on social-emotional skill building showed up in how AmeriCorps members support our students, our corps members are always checking in on the well-being of their students. They notice when a student might show up, in person or online, in a bad mood, and because of the relationships they’ve developed over time, they’re able to reach out to that student and ask them what they need.

They do it organically, because of their empathy and they are able to do it strategically, because of the tools we’ve given them.

It’s important to say that our teachers also benefit from our focus on social-emotional skills and holistic well-being. The teachers we partner with know that their students will be taken care of by our AmeriCorps members.

Teachers are so busy. Often, they may need to focus on the next thing they are teaching and move on with a lesson, but they know our corps will zero in on a student who may be struggling or facing hurdles that interfere with their learning.

Building trust

HM: Nothing would have worked without the trust our site built with both AmeriCorps members and our school partners.

With our corps, this meant we had to be very transparent and open with them at the beginning of COVID-19. There were so many unknowns—what service would look like, whether AmeriCorps would be flexible about the hour requirement corps members commit to, what our school partners would need. We, at the site leadership level, didn’t have most of the answers.

So, trust, for us, was just acknowledging that we didn’t always know what to say or what would happen and sharing what we were learning along the way. We told our corps we were working on getting clarity on their questions and they had faith in us.

On the school and district side of things, we had also established a good deal of trust. Yes, our curriculum is effective, but what really strengthened our relationship was the way we worked together to think about what each student needs, academically, socially and emotionally.

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Explore City Year’s holistic approach to student learning and development.

When we identified an outside partner to help us motivate students to read more as part of their distance learning, the district was completely on board. They said, ‘we trust you to pick high-quality materials and you vetted this so just tell us what you need.’ The pandemic forced us to collaborate with school partners even more, which is a good thing.

BM: We grew closer because of the uncertainties of the past year. The ways we support our AmeriCorps members—we’re not saying they are all perfect. But we stayed close to them. We were honest about what we didn’t know. We kept in constant communication with them. And we followed their lead in certain ways. We wanted them to know they have agency during the pandemic.

We are all still learning. The outcome has been that our relationships are the strongest they’ve ever been.

Explore the report highlights.

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