Struggling students need consistent and strong support systems, all day, every day, year after year.
Through A City Education, City Year corps members share their experiences working as tutors and mentors in schools in hopes of closing the opportunity gap and ending the dropout crisis.
A quick search on "Orlando, Florida" results in pages of hotels, restaurants, and getaway packages that are supposed to help visitors experience "all that Orlando has to offer." To many people that I've met, Orlando is simply palm trees and two-hour lines at amusement parks, beautiful people in pastel colored pants, and big sunglasses on boats. But as a native Floridian, I can tell you that for people living in Orlando, the vacation vibe isn't the reality. The flashy ads don't show the kids that go to our schools—the ones who can't afford to visit theme parks and don't own sparkling pools.
City Year Orlando serves in six schools within the Orange County Public Schools, including Catalina Elementary School in southwest Orlando. Thirty-four percent of residents within the zip code area of Catalina Elementary live below the poverty line. This alone can cause a slew of issues such as food and health insecurity, inability to find quality affordable housing, and dropping out of school. Census data on the Catalina Isle neighborhood shows that 29 percent of residents are high school dropouts, and 13 percent have yet to complete more than nine years of formal education. More than 99 percent of students at Catalina Elementary qualify for free lunch, which means that their families are hovering around the federal poverty line.
City Year is working to address the dropout crisis by providing extra support in classes and schools that need it the most. Catalina Elementary is the newest addition to the schools that City Year serves, which was made possible by the Governor-Mayor Initiative grant, a partnership between Florida's Governor Rick Scott, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, and the Corporation for National Community Service. These members include those who serve with City Year Orlando, City of Orlando/After School All Stars, and the Heart of Florida United Way. These programs provide crucial services for OCPS and Orlando by supporting students who otherwise have little support. This partnership has also allowed for the private and public sector to work together to address some of the city's most pressing issues, especially those that we see at Catalina and in other schools.
Last year, fifty corps members served in five schools across the county. The Governor-Mayor Initiative grant helped our corps grow from fifty members to sixty and extended our services from five to six schools. This will impact students in so many more ways than simply grades and standardized testing scores. Now, the students that we serve in elementary school will be able to see red jackets when they enter middle school until they graduate from high school. This allows City Year to be a consistent and strong support system for students, all day, every day, year after year.
When we help students learn, we open up previously sealed doors. When we invest in schools, we invest in the communities around those schools and we can help develop stronger support systems for those struggling students.
I'm serving this year at Maynard Evans High School in Pine Hills, supporting ninth graders in English classes. Every day I see the residual effects of the lack of individualized support my students were unable to access in earlier grades. Many of my students still struggle with basic math and reading. Even though I've only been at Evans for a month, I am all too aware of what happens when a student gives up on their education. I often find myself repeating the same "you can do this" and "you are not going to fail this test to my students who refuse to study because don't believe they can be successful. This is particularly frustrating because I know that these students are capable of so much more than they show. They rarely accept anything at face value and they often ask questions in order to figure out why an answer is the correct answer. They're observant and kind—they ask me how I am feeling with true curiosity.
Many of my students have responsibilities well above their age range and experiences that make them heroes, or at least heroes to my teacher and me. Despite these good qualities, more often than not my students argue that they lack the intelligence to perform in school or that their fate has already been decided for them. I wish, more than anything, to embed confidence into such capable young people. Each day, I work with students on their short-term goals such as learning new vocabulary words or figuring out how to identify imagery. I have one student who always begins our study time with, "I'm going to fail this test," but he never does—and he actually has an A in the class now.
By engaging students at the elementary school level, we can instill a passion for learning and achievement early on that will help them overcome challenges and help students be confident in their own abilities to succeed. On the first day of school, City Year Orlando's Catalina Elementary School team greeted students with unprecedented enthusiasm. This year, that enthusiasm will remain as unwavering as the red jackets that support these students throughout their educational journey.
Get involved with City Year by attending an Opening Day ceremony or supporting the local corps. Click here to say you'll do it.
Image courtesy of City Year Orlando