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Spotlight on Southwark School: A Recap of City Year Philly’s Third Virtual Visit

On Tuesday, March 23, members of the City Year Philly community gathered for our third virtual school visit with AmeriCorps members and staff from Southwark School, a PreK-8 school located in South Philadelphia. This event provided an opportunity for the Southwark school leadership and three Southwark Corps members—Tanya Jain, Tessa Hannigan, and Yana Russell—to share their experiences serving with City Year and navigating the ups and downs of virtual learning, as well as for potential partners to learn more about the Southwark School community at large.

The event began with Andrew Lukov, Principal of Southwark School, who shared an overview of Southwark School and discussed the benefits and successes of the six-year partnership with City Year, particularly during this difficult year. For instance, when Principal Lukov noticed a trend of low attendance, he worked with Southwark staff and City Year AmeriCorps members to coordinate on initiatives such as phone calls home, Morning Meetings, and social-emotional learning to provide students with much-needed support during virtual schooling. As a result, attendance at Southwark has steadily increased over the last three months—a rare and positive trend during the pandemic.

“It’s been six years, and I can’t think of our school without City Year. It’s part of the fabric of our school,” reflected Principal Lukov on City Year’s partnership with Southwark.

Liz Hejlek, Community School Coordinator, shared some details on Southwark’s robust community partnerships with neighbors, partner organizations, and elected officials, as well as examples of some community engagement events and activities from the past couple of years (as seen above). She emphasized that City Year’s AmeriCorps members have played an integral role in planning initiatives that may not otherwise be possible and making students feel seen and heard during this challenging year.

“I think more than anything else, what I see is that our students see themselves in our Corps members. And that is something that is unique, and City Year brings that energy to our school community that I can’t imagine having otherwise,” Hejlek commented on her experience working with City Year at Southwark.

The event then moved into a moderated panel discussion with the three Corps members—led by Sarah Richman, Impact Manager at Southwark—followed by an audience Q&A. The Corps members each gave an overview of what attracted them to serving with City Year and their most meaningful takeaway from service so far.

As a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Tanya Jain sought out opportunities to give back to her community after witnessing the harmful effects of gentrification and over-policing in West Philadelphia neighborhoods. She was drawn to City Year to continue her passion for social justice and education equity, and to also engage students in these important topics and teach them to be advocates for themselves. Tanya reflected on an example of witnessing a particular student’s growth throughout the year.

“One of my students had consistently expressed interest in social justice but became nervous when conveying her opinion or engaging the in debates. I supported her efforts during Leader in Me [afterschool program] and her passions through personal postcards and check-ins. It has been incredible to see her confidence grow—she shares without shame in class and when she gets nervous and begins to stutter, she picks herself up and tries again. She uses her artistic skills to create feminist art and attends Activist Club at City Year’s afterschool program with enthusiasm. It is exciting to see her delving into her interests and I am happy to have played even a small role in her growth.” -Tanya Jain

Tessa Hannigan spoke about the challenges of bridging the distance and disconnect posed by the virtual learning environment, both in dealing with inevitable tech issues as well as having fewer opportunities to get to know students outside of the classroom. They shared some of the strategies that their team has employed to make students feel comfortable and be able to share their voices, such as making sure that students have multiple options for participating in class discussions—out loud, in the private chat, in conversational surveys, and in breakout rooms—and leading 30-minute Morning Meetings at the start of each school day to give students a chance to play games, share stories from their lives, and kick off the school day in a fun and interactive way.

“Though connection has been a huge challenge during the pandemic it has also been the best part of service and so fulfilling – seeing [students] get passionate, laugh out loud in games and come talking together seriously about important issues or even the questions about weird food combinations. I’m really proud of their work this year, it lights up my day to see them grow.” -Tessa Hannigan

Yana Russell, like her two teammates, has found building personal relationships with students to be one of the most fulfilling aspects of service. At the beginning of the school year, she was tasked with drafting a list of students who could benefit from “near-peer” mentoring. Yana expected the choices to be obvious—students who didn’t show up for class, who seemed disengaged, or who struggled to keep up–and she was surprised when her partner teacher recommended one student with exemplary attendance and grades. It served as a reminder to her that even students who seem to have it all together can sometimes use an extra push.

“This student had made such a profound impact on me because he reminded me of myself when I was his age. Like Pablo, I am also an only child. Like Pablo, I also seemed to the adults around me like I had everything together. Unlike Pablo, I didn’t ever have an adult to guide me or mentor me, even when it became undeniably clear as I got older that I did in fact not have everything together. That made me want to become the adult I needed at that age to Pablo.” -Yana Russell [Note: The student’s real name was changed for privacy.]


Thank you to Principal Lukov, Liz, Sarah, Tanya, Tessa, Yana, and all of our attendees for taking the time to join us for this event! Our fourth and final virtual visit of the 2020-2021 school year with Lewis C. Cassidy School will take place on Wednesday, May 12; click here to register. To learn more about applying to serve with City Year, visit


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