Editor’s note: This essay was written by Jamie Clark, assistant principal of Kensington High School, and Raijene Dreuitt who is the City Year Philadelphia impact manager for Kensington High School.
Pursuing education equity is not — as the saying goes — for the faint of heart. Combating decades upon decades of inequitable access to education is hard work, especially in a system that shows, through ongoing neglect, that it doesn’t care about students of color or students from low-income households.
At Kensington High School (KHS), we’re proud of the collaborative approach we take to pursuing equity in education. It truly takes a village. Having City Year Philadelphia work with students in different capacities is one way KHS goes about this.
City Year is an education nonprofit working hard to address equitable access to educational opportunities. Dedicated and passionate City Year AmeriCorps members work closely with students, doing so through individualized attention that helps students feel valued and supported in their learning. Together, we work to build caring relationships with our students. And it takes a fervent diligence to shine a light on students’ assets and aspirations in a society that only wants to broadcast their deficits.
First and foremost, we all have to be aligned on what we’re working toward: student success. But before we can even talk about instruction, safety is the number one factor. Extending far beyond physical safety, this includes creating spaces where students feel emotionally and mentally comfortable. Sometimes all it takes is someone a tad bit “cooler” (from a student’s point of view) or a little bit closer in age to be able to support students holistically.
For instance, our City Year AmeriCorps members who serve daily as mentors, tutors, and classroom supports are closer in age (anywhere between 21 and 25 years old) to KHS students than, say, most teachers or school administrators. Through City Year’s “near-peer” service model, students are often willing to open up more or to receive instruction differently from City Year AmeriCorps members.
During the 2020-2021 academic year, which we’ve started online due to the coronavirus pandemic, City Year AmeriCorps members are still working to make connections with students. A few short weeks into the academic year, this includes warmly greeting every student as they are admitted into the virtual classroom each morning and supporting teachers with virtual breakout rooms to further acquaint students with this year’s City Year team.
Providing social-emotional support is another key to collaboratively pursuing educational equity. As City Year AmeriCorps members work alongside students to help them tackle algebra problems or to boost reading comprehension, they also help them learn how to problem solve, work in teams, and bounce back after a setback; social-emotional skills that are important in school and in life.
For the 2020-2021 academic year, we’re also pleased to share that City Year is a partner in the School District of Philadelphia’s Healing Together initiative, which is designed to address the needs of students, staff, and families in the wake of sustained trauma. All City Year AmeriCorps members were trained in the Healing Together curriculum as educators lean into the critical importance of social and emotional learning and support during these times.
What’s special about City Year AmeriCorps members is that they’ll leverage their age proximity to students to say, “Yes, I understand. Yes, I’ve gone through something similar.” And most importantly, “Yes, I care enough to listen to you share what’s on your mind.” They fiercely advocate for students’ social-emotional learning support and strengths building, knowing that in order for students to be their best selves academically, we must first do everything we can to support them mentally.
Furthermore, Corps members take a “by any means necessary” approach to learn what students care about and what may be blocking their learning. They make connections to remove those barriers and help build up confidence and trust.
As we continue in the new school year, and venture into more unchartered territories caused by COVID-19, collaboration toward education equity is more critical than ever. Will it be harder? Of course. But because of our foundation — which is a partnership based on true collaboration and centered on authentic relationships with our youth beyond academics — we’ll show up each day and do our best for our students. We’re all in this together.
Editors: Zari Tarzona, Siani Colón / Designer: Henry Savage
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