by Dana White '15, AmeriCorps member now serving with Irving Middle School

On Friday, December 9, City Year Boston welcomed 300 leaders of Boston's investment community at our eighth Annual Women’s Leadership Breakfast. Below are the remarks made by our featured speaker Dana White who served as a City Year AmeriCorps member at the Young Achievers Science and Math Pilot K-8 School in 2015 and returned this year as a Team Leader.

Dana White: I am excited to share my City Year story with you all today. Last year, I had the opportunity to develop amazing relationships with my students that improved their success in school, and I am just one of 265 corps members doing the same in 21 Boston Public Schools every day.

My road to putting on this red jacket started just a few miles outside of Boston. I grew up in Weston as the second oldest of 6 children. Growing up, my family always made time for giving back. My parents placed a lot of value on being gracious and acknowledging what allowed you to get to where you are. 

For those reasons, I was drawn to national service. But I particularly connected to City Year and its education-based mission because I knew how fortunate I was to have an education that responded to my needs. Growing up, I struggled in various subjects. I didn’t do well with textbooks, lectures or Scantron tests. But the first time I entered an outdoor classroom, that's when learning clicked. Hands-on learning worked for me and it's how I discovered a love for ocean science. That led me to Bowdoin College, as well as opportunities like volunteering at the New England Aquarium, and a semester of research in Australia.

Because I had the means, I could develop an education tailored to me. But that’s not the case for most people. Everyone learns differently, and our education system often isn’t set up to respond to those needs. Being part of City Year meant that I could help create opportunities for students in need of that personalized support.

I was psyched to join City Year, but it wasn't until my first day at Young Achievers that I really saw what this red jacket symbolizes. When the students saw me outside school, they raced up the steps and swarmed me with hugs. They were so excited, saying, "You're a new City Year! Welcome! Are you going to be my City Year?" It's a moment I'll never forget, because it showed me that I was part of something much bigger than myself.

Students connect with their City Year Corps Members because we're with them the whole day. From morning greeting at 7:50am sharp until Extended Day ends at 6:00pm, we're on our feet and with our students. My role as a Corps Member was to support students in 3 key areas – what we call the ABCs - attendance, behavior, and coursework. We work with students in these areas because if a student is struggling in just one of them, there's a higher chance they won't make it to high school graduation.

That means that we're on the steps of the school each morning to greet students with a song or chant to get them excited for the school day, and also to check in on homework or to make sure they got a good night's sleep. If our students weren't there, we'd call home to check in with caregivers.

After morning greeting, I'd head to my 4th grade classroom where I'd spend the day with my partner teacher, Miss James. After lunch and more class, we'd end the day in our afterschool program, providing homework help and fun activities, like science labs. For the record, there is no greater thrill for a science geek like me than melting layers of crayon shavings to show a 4th grader how the rock cycle works.

Inside our classroom, you would often find Miss James at the front board and me circulating between desks. I would sit next to students to offer 1:1 support or model good classroom behavior. I developed relationships with students, and because of my role, I saw small things that would be easy to miss. Together, Miss James and I made sure that each student was receiving the right kind of instruction and attention.

Alex is a prime example of a student who would be easy to overlook if you had to teach an entire classroom of students. Walking into our classroom, the first thing you would notice about Alex was that... he was asleep. He had a hard time staying awake, and when his head was up, he wasn't raising his hand. It would be easy to write him off as a student who simply didn't care about class, but once I got to know him, that was the furthest thing from the truth.

To start, my first priority was to make sure that Alex got to school. Then, my job was to wake him up, and get him reengaged. It started off with small things, like getting a drink of water, or going to the back of the room to take notes together. I knew that I had to keep his body moving to keep his mind alert, so I would have him mimic little motions while we were taking notes. I'd pick up my foot and he'd do the same. It was subtle, but it helped him feel like we had a special bond and it kept him attentive throughout the lesson.

Gradually that developed into our routine, and as I got to know him, I discovered that he had a lot on his plate for a 10 year old. Because of things going on in his home life, he often stayed up late. Beyond that, Spanish is his first language, and this was his first year outside of a Sheltered English Immersion classroom. He had substantial gaps in comprehension, so he wasn't confident participating in class. When he stumbled while reading out loud, classmates would make fun of him. He would get picked on for missing small social cues and had a tough time making friends.

When school becomes a place where you're constantly ridiculed for your insecurities, it's nearly impossible to want to attend, let alone participate. That's why I love City Year – we don't just concentrate on academics, but on the whole child. Alex's success was dependent on me recognizing and celebrating his small wins. So I would make a huge deal when he arrived to school on time every morning. I would make sure to say, "Awesome job staying awake in class!" and we'd set goals to keep those streaks going. He loved jelly donuts, so that became an incentive if he stayed awake in class for a whole month.

Once Alex and I had built a foundation of trust, we concentrated on finding small wins in his schoolwork. I would host sight words competitions during the first five minutes of every lesson with my students – seeing a word and knowing how to say it. If they could beat my time, they would get a reward. With each passing day, I saw Alex's confidence grow as he recognized more and more words.

I discovered that he liked comic books and was often reading books far under grade level because of their pictures. So I made it my mission to find age-appropriate graphic novels that were challenging, and that would hold his interest. Soon, I caught him devouring graphic novels during independent reading time.

By June, Alex went from reading 80 words per minute, to 111 words per minute, a nearly 40% leap in comprehension – that is huge for a 4th grader. Not only could he read aloud with ease, but he could answer questions about the material. His confidence skyrocketed and his hand started to fly up in class because he actually wanted to share his insights. He started to have fun at school and make friends. A moment of overwhelming pride for me was the first day that Alex asked to replace his jelly donut reward with reading time with 2 friends. And at the end of the year, Alex auditioned for the City Year talent show with a "comedy set". While he won't be starring on an HBO special anytime soon, he really put himself out there and I could see how much he had grown in our year together.

Alex isn't alone. In fact, all of my students displayed similar gains in reading literacy. That metric gives me confidence that they’ll be able to keep up in 5th grade, and beyond.

When I think about my students, I'm reminded of one of my favorite pieces of City Year culture, the idea of ripples. It comes from a Robert F. Kennedy quote, the idea that each time a person makes a small act to improve the lives of others, they send forth a tiny ripple of hope. And together those ripples become a current that can create real change. I like to think I created small ripples for my students. And that's why I came back for a second year. As a team leader, I can help train and lead an incredible team of 10 corps members to create ripples for their students. Being at the Irving with middle schoolers is immensely different and challenging, but rewarding in ways that I never anticipated.

And I'll be honest. Wins don't happen every day. We put in long hours and this work is hard. But when you have those breakthrough moments, you know you've fought for them and they become that much more meaningful. That's how you know your work matters.

When I finish my service in June, I know that I need to continue doing work that matters. City Year was supposed to be a gap year before I got my PhD in oceanography. But my corps year showed me what it's like to do meaningful work as part of a team. It has been a great opportunity to discover how nonprofits and businesses operate, and how to be a manager at just 23 years old. While I am still figuring out what's next, I think that I would [eventually] like to start a career that enables me to connect students from urban school systems to hands-on experiences in science, so that they can unlock the same love of learning that I discovered.

These two years have given me back so much more than I ever thought was possible. And like I said before, this is just my story. There are 265 other stories from my fellow corps members in Boston alone. Across the country, there are 3,000 stories of young people from all walks of life.

And nearly 195,000 students like Alex every year, who are getting ahead because they have a City Year mentor who believes in them.

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