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A City Education: It Takes More Than One Person to Change the System

A City Year Los Angeles corps member learns that fixing public schools isn't easy.

In our A City Education series, two City Year corps members share their experiences working as tutors and mentors in schools in hopes of closing the achievement gap and ending the dropout crisis.

Ten months ago, I started my service at Markham Middle School in the Watts section of Los Angeles. As a student journalist who covered public education, I thought I knew what I was in for. I started this year with the confidence that I would be able to bring my student's reading levels up to where they were supposed to be. I soon realized though that catching up kids who were up to three grade levels behind was going to be harder than I’d expected. After serving as a tutor and mentor for an entire school year I now view the world differently.

I and the other City Year corps members at Markham learned that educators must ensure their students achieve despite plenty of distractions. We couldn't control the outside factors that plague low-income communities: challenging home lives, gang activity, and violence. Some of my teammates struggled with their students ditching school for days on end and getting involved with gangs. We also never knew when something that happened in the neighborhood would cause chaos on campus or in an individual student's life.

Obstacles to learning lurk inside the school too. Fire alarms were always going off at Markham. As the alarm blared during my last week on campus, I didn’t cover my ears and roll my eyes at the interruption. Instead, my partner teacher and I still tried to continue the lesson with our students—even though eventually a student and I started to laugh over the situation. No matter how hard my teammates encouraged, some students remained unmotivated to learn. Some students who wanted desperately to learn couldn't because of disruptive classmates.

Still, we didn't lose hope. Regardless of a student's situation, we knew deep down that all of our students had the ability to achieve. We believed in our students in even the toughest times. We never gave up because it was our job to keep calm in all situations and never doubt that the kids could learn. Sure, my heart ached whenever my students would try and try, but still didn’t understand. I learned to celebrate every victory. If a student accomplished something small like spelling "because" correctly or completing a worksheet, they still achieved.

I'm leaving Markham knowing that one student told me she wants to go to college so she can make Watts a better place. Other students significantly increased their reading ability, sometimes doubling their grade level. Still other students trust us enough to tell us anything, which shows me that we really made an impact.

However, throughout the year, I always wondered what it would be like for my students to be growing up in another, wealthier, area of Los Angeles. Would they still be so far behind grade level? Would they have to deal with those other outside factors that impact their behavior and attitude toward school? Probably not.

I learned that although it's true that life is never fair, we can make it more just by serving in communities that need an extra hand. As the year comes to a close, the most valuable lesson I've learned is that changing the world isn't as easy as it sounds. The issues facing our public education system—and the communities City Year serves—are a cause bigger than ourselves. One person can make an impact, but one person can't fix everything I've witnessed this year.

City Year taught me to give a voice to the voiceless and now that my year of service is over, that’s what I'll continue doing thousands of miles away. In July, I'll start teaching English with the Peace Corps in South Africa. I will carry my Markham memories with me forever. I am grateful to the school and community for giving me a life changing experience and showing me a reality that too many other Americans aren't aware exists.

Thanks to my students, I know that whether it's a rural village in Africa or a neighborhood in Los Angeles, wherever I can make a difference is where I belong.

Photo courtesy of Liz Warden

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