Serve the student, gain the graduate
The City Year Tulsa program helps teachers focus on educating students by addressing behavioral and tutoring needs.
Sequoyah Elementary fourth-grader Edriece Anderson works on a project with City Year member Gabe Woolley. Sequoyah is one of six Tulsa Public Schools sites where City Year members collaborate with classroom teachers to help address behavior, poor attendance and course-related hurdles.
In Rachel Smith’s fifth-grade classroom at Sequoyah Elementary School, a small desk is pushed against one wall with stacks of folders and a dozen origami swans. Over the back of the adult-sized chair is draped the signature red AmeriCorps jacket. This is where Ms. Nataly operates — some of the time at least.
In June, she finished her one-year commitment as a teacher with City Year, an AmeriCorps program that provides classroom help with behavioral needs and tutoring.
Ms. Nataly — or, if you aren’t an elementary school student, Nataly Cruz — came to Tulsa from Miami, Florida, in July 2014. After graduating from Florida International University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Cruz’s interest was piqued at the opportunity to help introduce the City Year program to Oklahoma.
City Year members are 17- to 24-year-olds who are selected through a demanding application process and intensive training. Assignments are based on the evaluated strengths and talents of corps members. City Year looks for individuals who have experience working on a team and demonstrate commitment, humility, self-awareness, flexibility and problem-solving skills, as well as experience working with youth and/or tutoring and mentoring. Teacher certification is not required.
Usually, they are recent high school or college graduates who are taking a “gap year” before moving on to higher education or the workforce. During their 11-month commitment, members receive training and support in behavior coaching and tutoring for various learning styles.
City Year came to Tulsa Public Schools in the 2013-2014 school year in response to the TPS graduation rate of 65 percent (in 2012-2013), well below the statewide average of 85 percent. City Year was called to Tulsa by Growing Together, a collaboration of organizations that enables children to live, learn and thrive in their neighborhoods and schools, and to support at-risk children in the Kendall Whittier and Eugene Field elementary schools.
Fifty City Year members are divided into teams working at Sequoyah, Eugene Field and Kendall Whittier elementary schools; Will Rogers Junior High; Clinton Middle School; and Webster High School. Within 10 years, City Year expects to have 220 AmeriCorps members serving in approximately 24 Tulsa schools.
“Our founding year has set the groundwork for incredible impact in our schools,” says City Year Tulsa’s Executive Director Tom McKeon. “We’re seeing results in our schools that confirm our belief that every student has potential and can succeed.”
Changing student outcomes
According to City Year research, a sixth-grader who has poor attendance, displays disruptive behavior, or is failing math or English has only a 25 percent chance of graduating high school on time.
When a student as young as third grade demonstrates any of these early warning signs, City Year members step in to address behavior, attendance and course-related hurdles, specifically in math and English.
Teachers, in partnership with City Year Tulsa members, identify students who are below grade level in math and English proficiency based on standardized tests. These students are placed on a list to receive support from City Year members.
Cruz’s English lessons usually focused on improving fluency (understanding each word on the page) and comprehension (summarizing the story after reading it). She developed specific lesson plans and determined the best teaching method for each student.
Two fifth-graders started the year with reading scores between 500-600, Smith says; the proficiency score is 830.
“Seeing them work toward their goals with Nataly was incredible,” Smith says. By the end of the year, “one of those students was proficient and the other was very close behind. They both exceeded their goals and made beyond one year’s worth of growth.”
One of Cruz’s most memorable students was Jacob Pester. His teacher and parents worked with Cruz to address his behavioral problems.
“At the beginning of the year, he was getting into a lot of fights with the other kids, and it would always come down to him telling me, ‘They deserved it,’” Cruz remembers.
She spent a semester asking him questions like, “Why did that happen?” and “How do you think the other person is feeling?” Ultimately, she says, each conversation came to the same conclusion: “You can’t control the other person’s behavior, but you can control yours. What are you going to do?”
By the end of the fall semester, “‘He deserved it’ was out of Jacob’s vocabulary,” Cruz says. “He’s an 11-year-old boy, and he’s still learning, but now he knows how to step away from situations.” By the end of the school year, he was supporting and coaching his friends on their behavior, Cruz adds.
According to Pester, it’s hard to talk about Ms. Nataly without “being mushy.”
“She helped me through a lot of tough times,” Pester reports as he sits beside Ms.
Nataly at her desk. “Whenever I got the chance, I tried to hang around here. We would talk about things that happened and how we can do it better next time.”
Cruz asks whether he feels he grew up a little over the school year.
“I hate to admit it,” he says, “but yes.”
According to his teacher, Pester is not the only student who matured with Cruz’s help and encouragement.
“It’s amazing how intimidating an 11-year-old can be,” Smith says. “At first, Nataly was a little timid, but I’ve seen her overcome that and be able to redirect students from inappropriate behavior. She has come in and helped students trust her, and that’s made a big difference in them and in her.”
Helping teachers help students
Another important part of City Year members’ workdays is calling the home of absent students in partner schools. These personal interactions with parents and students have increased attendance throughout the district.
Raye Nero, the principal of Sequoyah Elementary School, says City Year positively impacted her students and teachers over the 2014-2015 school year.
“I think teachers sometimes feel the pressure of being the only adult in the room,” she says. “If the teacher has put some structures in place and that City Year person can support them, that’s hugely helpful for the teacher.”
Smith agrees. During the fall 2014 semester, she had 32 students in class.
“It made a big difference to have Cruz in the room,” she says. “I felt so much better knowing that I wasn’t going to have to stop my lesson every few minutes to deal with some behavioral issue.”
According to Nero, City Year’s biggest impact is the one-on-one mentorship between City Year members and students.
“When you ask a kid what City Year means to them” academics won’t be the main focus, Nero says. “It is more about the relationships they built with positive role models. And that is lasting.”
If the origami swans on her desk are any indication, Ms. Nataly was well loved by her students. The graceful gifts of folded paper silently agree with Pester’s analysis: “One person makes a really big difference. It’s amazing how far we’ve come just by being together.”
At Clinton Middle School
19 out of 29 English Language Arts students* in grades 7 and 8 saw a score increase during the school year.
At Eugene Field Elementary
English Language Arts students* in grades 3-6 started the year with only 3 percent at a proficient level, growing to 43 percent proficiency by the end of the year. Those scoring below basic levels dropped from 37 percent at the start of the year to 16 percent by year’s end.
At Sequoyah Elementary
30 out of 35 English Language Arts students* in grades 3-6 saw a score increase during the school year.
*Students identified by teachers and City Year members as needing support
Source: City Year Tulsa