A City Education: Two Sides to Every School's Story

A recent college grad transitions from student journalist to City Year corps member.

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.

Radio voice recorder? Check. Headphones? Check. Microphone? Check. Reporter's notebook? Check.

After four years as a journalism major at the University of Southern California, I was ready to cover my first protest and first education story. On the March 4, 2010 Day of Action, cities across the country mobilized to draw attention to the public education crisis.

I knew the protest would give me one of the keys to a good story: conflict. Read any newspaper, and you’ll see schools covered in a disheartening, conflict-driven way—discussing controversial policies about budgets, test scores, teacher evaluations, lawsuits, and more. Most education stories remind our country that many of our public schools are failing and are "dropout factories." I admit it, I'm guilty of that, too. I structured my story on that March day around the angle of "students fighting to save their teachers against all odds."

After covering that story, I was inspired. Instead of looking for conflict, I wanted to find solutions. When I learned about what City Year does—near-peer mentoring, creating a stable environment for students, acting as tutors and role models in the classroom and fighting the dropout crisis in Los Angeles schools—I knew it was the right fit for me.

I spent my last semester as a student journalist working on a story about four Los Angeles schools City Year works in—116th Street Elementary, John Liechty Middle School, Gompers Middle School, and Markham Middle School. After graduation, I began my own City Year experience, and I told the program's staff that it would mean the world to me if I was able to serve in one of the schools I’d previously written about.

I got my wish. Today I proudly serve as a City Year corps member in a sixth-grade classroom at Markham Middle School in the Watts section of Los Angeles.

Now that I am serving as a corps member, I am able to see the parts of the school that don’t fit in the conflict-driven, story about a failing school often told in the media. I've met the dedicated teachers who’ve been working there for over 20 years. Nearly all of my 23 students wrote on their first-day-of-school survey that they want to attend college. Most of them have a sibling at home that attended college and can be a role model.

Still, I and the 15 other City Year corps members at Markham definitely have our work cut out for us as we help the staff foster a positive, stable school climate over the next nine months. This is the first fall in nine years when the principal has returned for a second year. Markham has even had seven different school mascots in the past 10 years.

A little over a month into the school year, I see a completely different school than what the media led me to believe about Markham. When I look in the eyes of my students, I don't see statistics or an Academic Performance Index score. I see students that can achieve anything they want to—they just need that extra push and another ear to listen to them. I’ve realized that the real story isn't in the conflict, it's in the solution. During my year of service at Markham Middle School, I plan to be a part of it.

Photo courtesy of City Year Los Angeles

Julian Meehan

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Translated from Swedish, "berg" means "mountain," so it may feel fated that a young woman with Viking blood in her veins and summit in her name would be at the helm. But let's go out on a limb and presume Thunberg, in keeping with most activists, would chafe at the notion of pre-ordained "destiny," and rightly so. Destiny is passive — it happens to you. It's also egomaniacal. Change, on the other hand, is active; you have to fight. And it is humble. "We need to get angry and understand what is at stake," Thunberg declared. "And then we need to transform that anger into action."

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RELATED: Greta Thunberg urges people to turn to nature to combat climate change

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