Learning To Learn: City Year members help students make the grade.
Every weekday morning, a small group of young adults wearing red jackets gathers outside the entrances to 11 Detroit and Harper Woods public schools, clapping and cheering as students arrive. These 71 City Year Detroit AmeriCorps members are there to welcome students and get them excited about a day of learning.
“In high-poverty neighborhoods, students face a lot of obstacles that they bring to school — all the things that affect their well-being. There is a stress impact of poverty, but there can be an attitude change when they see the City Year team members,” explained native Detroiter Andrew Stein, who returned home to become vice president and executive director of City Year Detroit.
Walking to school takes many students past burned-out, abandoned houses and trash-filled lots. Their school buildings are often old and shabby with security guards and metal detectors inside the front doors, but City Year Detroit strives to create a positive environment inside each school, nurturing young people and helping them cope with personal and academic challenges.
Each team member is trained to build relationships with students, staff and their fellow team members all to help elementary and middle school students stay in school and on track to graduate despite the challenges of high-poverty urban districts.
City Year is part of AmeriCorps, a federal program established in 1988 to offer a year of public service for young Americans — a sort of domestic Peace Corps. By 2007, AmeriCorps members worked in 17 American cities; now 27. They provide the “yeast to other nonprofits’ bread,” Stein said. “Corps members were relating to schools as no one else was and, by 2009, schools became the focus.”
The need was clear. Large numbers of students in poor urban districts weren’t graduating, and many who were in school were way below grade level in academic achievement. According to Stein, only 4 percent of Detroit fourth-graders read at grade level and only 7 percent have grade-level math test scores.
A DATA-DRIVEN MODEL
City Year developed a model to identify and help students at high risk for not graduating by using research from Johns Hopkins University. Those studies showed that likely dropouts could be identified while in late elementary school by tracking their attendance, behavior or course performance.
City Year Detroit works in schools within the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) district, the Education Achievement Alliance (a group of low-achieving, former DPS schools reconstituted in a special district) and the Harper Woods district.
“We work in schools with conditions that will maximize impact — with data availability and principals and teachers who will help design an intervention,” Stein said. Participating schools agree to provide standardized test results and attendance data so that City Year can track students’ progress. Each school is assigned an AmeriCorps team and their continuity throughout the school year is a positive addition.
Latoya Webb-Harris, principal of Noble School on Fullerton in Detroit, said, “The AmeriCorps team is an awesome addition to Noble. When not here, we miss their presence.” Noble is made up of two buildings, one dating from 1923, located across the street from a hulking, burned-out residence. Eighth-grade classes have 44 students who can barely fit in the classrooms.
There are some positives — a school playground has modern play equipment for young children and special state grants have funded high-end computers for the library. And City Year is making a difference. Among fifth-graders below benchmark at the start of the last school year who were tutored by City Year members, 73 percent and 85 percent respectively met or exceeded benchmarks in literacy and math by year-end.
— Shari S. Cohen | Contributing Writer
MEET JEWISH CITY YEAR MEMBERS
Jewish participation in City Year Detroit occurs at several levels. In addition to Vice President/Executive Director Andrew Stein and the AmeriCorps members below, two board members — Karen Sosnick Schoenberg and Mark Zausmer — are Jewish.
Stein, 32, was born and raised in Metro Detroit. He is an alumnus of Detroit Country Day School and Michigan State University. After college, he served as a City Year corps member in Washington, D.C., and then attended Georgetown Law School. Stein worked for several years at a Washington law firm while volunteering on urban-related projects. He was interested in working in the nonprofit sector and returned to head City Year Detroit early this year, replacing Penny Bailor, who retired. Stein, his wife and two children live in Detroit’s Sherwood Forest neighborhood.
Crane, a City Year alumna, grew up in Farmington Hills. After graduating from the University of Michigan, she “wanted to do something that would make a difference in her own community.” Her father had been in the Peace Corps, and AmeriCorps appealed to her. Crane was a team leader for eight AmeriCorps members from 2009-2910. She then worked as a community relations associate at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metropolitan Detroit. Crane subsequently joined KPMG, earned an MBA and is now a senior associate in the firm’s Advisory Practice in the People and Change area. She lives in Detroit.
AmeriCorps member Fellows, 21, was raised in West Bloomfield and graduated from Andover High School and Albion College. “My family background has made me historically interested and likewise politically aware growing up, and this translated to majoring in history and political science. My time at Albion opened a social consciousness for me and relatedly, following my mother’s side, meant studying Detroit, and indirectly realizing that social inequality … City Year is my way of starting an idealist initiative for my life in Detroit and hopefully nationwide,” he explained. Fellows lives in Ferndale.
City Year team leader Pickman, 22, is from Huntington Woods and graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University. Pickman has volunteered for Leader Dogs for the Blind, Yad Ezra and Summer in the City. She chose to serve as a City Year AmeriCorps member because she wants to help children whose education and chance for success are burdened by the impact of mental health issues.
CITY YEAR DETROIT SNAPSHOT
Corps members: 71
Schools served: 11
Students served: 4,720
Annual team member support: $12,100 for living expenses and $5,370 at the end of their service.
2014-15 achievements: 82 percent of DPS students served in English/language arts and math maintained or improved their grades, while 52 percent of students targeted for attendance issues maintained or improved their school attendance.
Source: City Year Detroit,