By Stephanie Kerr • June 12, 2020•Ms. JD
Upon beginning my service as a City Year AmeriCorps Member in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, I was shocked by how starkly the community contrasted the images of wealth and glamor typically associated with the city. The rates of poverty, violence, and unemployment were among the highest in the state, and the neighborhood schools further reflected the inequities long faced by the community. Crammed classrooms with limited supplies led by a slew of substitute teachers were a daily occurrence, and declining budgets significantly reduced the number of counselors available to support the thousands of students struggling from the effects of trauma. At my school, most of my ninth graders were years behind in reading and math, and only half were expected to finish high school.
Seeing these disparities firsthand was infuriating but also provided me with an increased sense of purpose. As a tutor and mentor, I may not have been able to tackle the systemic challenges my students faced, but I could support their growth and set them on a path towards graduation. Through intentional relationship building, data-informed lesson planning, and collaboration with school and community partners, I slowly witnessed my students progress.
Each day brought triumphs as small as a student getting to class on time to as big as a student achieving an A on a test for the first time. By the end of the year, every single one of my students had passed all of their classes and exceeded their growth goals for reading and math.
After completing two years of AmeriCorps service in the classroom, I joined City Year’s staff as the founding Program Manager for a middle school in South Los Angeles. At this school, years of poor academic performance, high administrative turnover, and an influx of charter schools in the community had led to a significant reduction in the student population and school budget. The loss of funding resulted in the elimination of multiple teaching positions and resources, such as a nurse, librarian, and aides for English Language Learners, despite their obvious benefits to students. As I sat in budget planning meetings and listened to parents, teachers, and administrators debate on which services ought to receive funding, I was appalled. How was it even possible that a school would not receive adequate funding to provide all of the necessary services for its students?
For the next two years, my team and I did everything I could to address the challenges the students at my school faced. We met monthly with the teachers and administrators to review student data and strategize how we could best support; we hosted a variety of whole-school events for students, parents, and community members focused on leadership, social justice, and wellness; and we collectively provided more than 1000 hours of targeted literacy and math interventions to students. By the end of my time as the Program Manager, City Year had become an integral part of the school community, and the students grew considerably in literacy, math, and attendance.
My four years with City Year taught me the true meaning of collaboration, leadership, and perseverance. I learned that building meaningful relationships was essential to providing the most effective support to the students and the school community. I learned that leadership means catalyzing your passion to empower others while maintaining a level of humility to implement constructive feedback and allow others to step up and shine. I learned that you can overcome almost any obstacle by staying cognizant of your ultimate goal and reaching out for support when you need it.
Now, I feel ready to apply all of the valuable lessons I gained from my time with City Year to begin tearing down the barriers that students face to receive a quality education in the first place. Often touted as the “great equalizer,” the reality is that our education system is far from equal. Educational opportunities and outcomes differ significantly based on race and zip code, and critical issues such as funding and school discipline often disproportionately impact low-income students of color. Our current education system pushes too many students into the margins, and I want to enact lasting change to the structures and systems that perpetuate this marginalization. As an attorney, I hope to use my voice to share my students’ stories and fight to build a more equitable society for them and all young people.