City Year Tackles the High School Dropout Crisis

City Year corps members based in Los Angeles write about their experiences. Some people don't understand how bright and...


City Year corps members based in Los Angeles write about their experiences.
Some people don't understand how bright and wonderful they are. Sometimes, they just need some encouragement and help to better understand themselves. Alisha is one of those people.

As a senior corps member with City Year in Los Angeles, I spend four days a week from 7:30 a.m. to about 6 p.m. working at Markham Middle School in Watts. I joined City Year as a mid-year corps member in January of last year, after graduating a semester early from the University of Michigan. Throughout college, while aware of social injustice and achievement gaps in education, I never really did much about it. City Year provided me with a unique opportunity to finally take action.

From my very first day in class, I knew that Alisha was special. I introduced myself to the class and as the lesson continued, I stood back to get a general feel of the room. Right away, the kids' individual personalities were becoming clear. First off, there were the alphas. These were the students who had no qualms with being loud and speaking their minds. Then there were the quiet, studious ones, who took notes notes and stayed quiet until the teacher posed a question.

Then there was Alisha, who sat with her head down against the desk and her hood pulled up to cover her face. The boys at her table were teasing her but she stayed silent. I sat at the table with them in order to get the students back on task and to strike up a conversation with her. She told me her name, I told her mine. She told me how much she hated math and reading, while I told her how much I loved those things.

As the week progressed, I observed how the students learned and did their work. With Alisha, I noticed that she was very bright but incredibly hesitant. I would explain something to her and she would understand it, but when I asked her what to do, she would simply say: "I dunno." This was beyond frustrating because I knew that she really did know, she just didn't trust herself enough to do things on her own. Of course I didn't want to unload my critical analysis on her, so I simply recommended that she should come to our after-school program for extra help.

After a week of persistent invitations, she finally came around. Right away, no matter who she worked with, it was the same situation. She would clearly grasp the material being presented to her but as soon as she was left on her own, she would freeze up, get frustrated, and often just shut down completely.

Working as a team of 10, we would encourage her and do our best to make her realize that she understood the material. It seemed to be working because she was a regular at our program and gradually, she opened up to us more and more.

In the last couple weeks, Alisha has made amazing progress. She raises her hand to answer questions and she does so with accuracy and confidence. Her teacher even remarked, in front of the entire class, how much she has improved. She doesn't freeze up anymore, trusting in her knowledge.

Recently, after she answered a question correctly, I walked up to her and told her how proud I was of the progress she's made. Alisha looked up at me and simply smiled. She didn't say anything, but in this case she didn't have to: Her smile said it all.

Arthur Shtern is a team leader for City Year in Los Angeles.

And be sure to check out last week's dispatch from Jenelle Thompson, also a City Year team leader.