A City Education: The Structure of Student Success

With tough economic times affecting families, more than ever schools have to ensure students have a consistent, safe learning environment.

In our A City Education series, 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.

Homework help, outside time, lesson and snack: unless there’s a special event going on, the students in City Year Los Angeles' afterschool program at Normandie Avenue Elementary School can count on this routine.

The word "routine" doesn't usually inspire much excitement, but my teammates and I take pride in our ability to provide one. Our focus on consistency permeates everything from our uniforms to our chants to our 7:15 a.m. morning circles.

A conversation I had with a staff member earlier this month highlighted the importance of consistency. She mentioned that she has seen a rise in behavioral problems at Normandie; from what she can tell, the economy has played a significant role in the change.

Economic hardship affects communities all across the United States, but the reality is that some areas get hit harder than others. South Los Angeles—Normandie's area—is one of them.

With unemployment high, many parents are facing financial difficulties, and more often than not, children feel the effects of their parents' worries. Though elementary-aged children aren't well-versed in financial terms, they're incredibly sensitive to stress—and to the uncertainty that comes with it.

Moreover, that stress doesn’t simply stay at home. At school, it crops up in many different forms, from lack of focus to outright defiance.

The result? Schools have to be extra diligent in making sure students have the structure they need. Supporting that goal is an integral part of City Year's mission.

First and foremost, consistency is all about showing up. Like many college students, I didn't always take care of myself during my undergraduate years. I now make sure to sleep well and drink vitamin C packets religiously. I've accepted that I'm not just responsible for myself anymore. If I expect my students to arrive at school ready to learn, I have to arrive at school ready to help them.

We also set clear rules and expectations for our students. In the afterschool program, we give them stars, warnings, and strikes to show them when they’re impacting others in a positive way and when they're spreading negativity. We do our best to praise the little things, like picking up extra trash—especially if a student seems to be having a tough time. If a student gets in trouble, we make sure he or she understands what went wrong and how to improve.

Finally, we run an afterschool program designed to enhance whatever students might be lacking. No quiet place to finish up classwork? We set up a space for students to concentrate and get one-on-one help. Nowhere to expend extra energy? That’s what the balls and jump ropes are for.

We can't control what students face outside of Normandie. It's not up to us. Nevertheless, we can ensure that while students are at school, they can see our bright yellow jackets and know they're in safe hands.

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Photo courtesy of City Year Los Angeles