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The Power of Mentorship: A Recap of City Year Philly’s Second Lunch & Learn

City Year Philadelphia’s second virtual Lunch & Learn took place on Monday, February 22The event was moderated by Darryl Bundrige, Executive Director and Vice President of City Year Philadelphia, and featured a panel of guest speakers who discussed the importance of mentorship and social-emotional learning among students throughout the school district. Panelists included: 

  • Aliya Catanch-Bradley, Principal of Mary McLeod Bethune School  
  • Dr. Abigail Gray, Deputy Chief of School Climate and Culture for the School District of Philadelphia 
  • Alexia Nebrao, AmeriCorps Team Leader at Mary McLeod Bethune School  
  • Tim Schmidt, Impact Manager at Mary McLeod Bethune School


The first two speakers of the event were Dr. Abigail Gray and Tim Schmidt. Gray, who is the Deputy Chief of School Climate and Culture for the School District of Philadelphia, is a former teacher at Shaw Middle School, as well as a previous recipient of the Moccasin Award at City Year Philadelphia’s Graduation ceremony. Schmidt is an Impact Manager at Mary McLeod Bethune School, and a two-time City Year Philadelphia alumnus.  


They began with a discussion of how mentorship connects with Gray’s role in the school district. “My job is really to work with folks in schools at all levels to do everything we can to create welcoming, positive, equitable learning environments,” she explained. Gray’s office has been largely focusing on promoting social-emotional learning and supports in schools, which is why she helped launch a district-wide initiative for schools to put aside 30 minutes every morning for a community meeting. It’s really a time for students and teachers to connect with one another, to share experiences, to talk about the fun stuff and the hard stuff, and to form a community.” This allows educators to step outside of their traditional “teacher” label and become true mentors to their students, as well as helping students develop mentoring relationships with one another, Gray said.  


Schmidt agreed excitedly: “Yes! I’ve been with City Year for almost five years now, I’ve served in the Corps as a mentor, and now I get to see AmeriCorps members on my team serve as role models,” he said. “I am a firm believer that our work starts with the relationships that we build with our students, staff, and faculty in school buildings.”  

“I am a firm believer that our work starts with the relationships that we build with our students, staff, and faculty in school buildings.” -Tim Schmidt, Impact Manager at Bethune School

The pair also discussed the importance of mentors in their own lives, both personal and professionalGray described how Sharif El-Mekki, founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development, was hugely inspirational for her due to his dedication to education equity and facilitating mentor relationships among his students. They also talked about the programs Gray and her team are using to support schools during the pandemicGray highlighted the need for schools to shift away from “harsh disciplinary consequences” to a more restorative approach, with the purpose of building relationships and social-emotional learning. She talked about how the District uses Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, in schools as a “way of explicitly teaching and providing students with positive feedback when they make the right kinds of choices.”  


Schmidt also asked Gray about some of the challenges her department facesShe shared the challenges of the under-resourcing and understaffing of Philly schools, and the historic lack of focus developing the school climate. “Climate is the number one predictor of achievement in academic areas,” she said. “If your kids don’t want to be in your building, they’re not going to learn. You need to make sure they want to be there.”


After a brief audience Q&A with Gray and Schmidt, Bundrige introduced the next pair of panelists: Principal Aliya Catanch-Bradley of Mary McLeod Bethune School and Alexia Nebrao, an AmeriCorps Team Leader at Bethune.


Principal Bradley started the conversation by discussing the importance of leadership in the midst of a global pandemic, especially when such an unprecedented event has exacerbated existing inequalities. “One of the things that’s really clear is that when the world and our country get cough, Black folks get cold, and when the country has a cold, Black folks get the flu,” she explained. To make it through this uncertain time, Bradley said, whave to lead with servant leadership, which means that we start and lead with love. Our school communities are an extension of our family, and we do all the things we can to advocate, to bring awareness, and to hold them accountable so we can make it to the other side of this pandemic.” 

“Whave to lead with servant leadership, which means that we start and lead with love. Our school communities are an extension of our family, and we do all the things we can to advocate, to bring awareness, and to hold them accountable so we can make it to the other side of this pandemic.” -Aliya Catanch-Bradley, Principal of Bethune School

Bradley and Nebrao also discussed the importance of mentorship — not just the impact that mentors have had on their own lives, but the need for adults to take on mentorship roles themselves. “I would stress to all adults on the call,” Bradley said, “if you don’t have four or five mentees, then you’re slacking on your job and we need you to get engaged with some young folks who are in need of guidance.” One of the great things about City Year, she explained, was how young AmeriCorps members are able to fill that mentorship role and relate to students who are of a similar age. While discussing their personal mentors, Nebrao shared how her high school choir director inspired her own passion to pursue mentorship roles: “Having her influence in my life made me realize that I would rather be in a space where I’m inspiring others and letting other people know what they’re capable of.” Nebrao is planning to continue this work by pursuing a career in education following her graduation from City Year Philadelphia. 


As Principal of Bethune, Bradley explained that her current priority for when schools reopen is to “check on the social-emotional wellness of our children and to reestablish schools as a safe place where you can come and be a student.” Nebrao acknowledged that even during virtual school, the support of students’ social-emotional needs has been hugely important. “A lot of the students really love the community at Bethune, and they love to be with their peers and to chat about life. They will talk, talk, talk like no one’s business,” she said. 


Nebrao also asked Principal Bradley how she believes her efforts to diversify her teaching staff—which consists of 63 percent teachers of color, compared to 33 percent district-wide—is important to students’ academic and social-emotional development. Bradley explained that it is incredibly important for students to see themselves reflected in those in positions of authority, as it helps them to have role models to whom to aspire. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” stated Bradley on the importance of representation in diversifying teaching staffNebrao agreed and reflected on how, growing up as a young Asian-American woman, she had never considered teaching as a career path until she had a teacher in high school who was the same ethnicity as her.  


After another brief Q&A segment, Bundrige thanked all the panelists and the audience for their leadership in this work, and for sharing their insights at the Lunch & Learn event. You can watch a full recording of the event below: 


To learn more about City Year Philadelphia’s other upcoming events, click here. To learn more about applying to serve with City Year and start your application, visit

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