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September 20, 2013

Eight City Year volunteers help at East Detroit High

By Kevin Bunch
C & G Staff Writer

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City Year volunteers Chantel Sims and Sharani Jayaratne, of Atlanta, and Catherine Fischer, of Albany, N.Y., greet East Detroit student Antonique Morris on her way to class.

EASTPOINTE — Students at East Detroit High School will be getting some additional support this year from AmeriCorps volunteers.

The group of eight young adults — all volunteers through AmeriCorps — are participating in the City Year program, where people volunteer in urban school districts, according to East Detroit Superintendent Joanne Lelekatch.

“They are working with the ninth-grade staff and students,” Lelekatch said. “They do some tutoring, work on mentoring students, do some school-wide projects to do some community-building, and get kids more involved in extracurricular activities.”

Lelekatch said the volunteers have been in classrooms, in the lunchroom and tutoring kids after school, all in an effort to help students learn and become positive forces in their communities. She said that while two of the volunteers are local, the remaining six are from other parts of the country.

“This is a program that runs throughout the country, “ she said. “They are servicing 11 high schools in our area, and we were selected to participate.”

East Detroit High School Assistant Principal Sue Kirby said the school has been working with United Way for about two years to develop its curriculum and to secure grants, and recently, the organization contacted the school to tell them about the City Year opportunity, and to find out if the high school would be interested.

United Way funds a “significant portion” of the City Year program, with the rest coming from the district itself, Kirby said. Principal Mary Finnigan said the school district paid $75,000 from its at-risk student grant money for the program, which does not impact the district’s general fund. Another two-thirds came from United Way, private donors and federal AmeriCorps funding.

“We’re very lucky to have them,” Finnigan said.

While the broader program provides assistance for third through ninth grade, Kirby said only the ninth grade in the East Detroit district is part of it this year.

Jessica Lovy, program manager with City Year, said the volunteers at East Detroit form one of the most diverse groups the program has this year, with people coming from Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia and Bloomfield Hills. She said the program tries to get a good mix of geography, race, gender, age and academic backgrounds for their volunteer teams.

A five-year veteran of the City Year program, Lovy said she has been working with schools in Detroit for the past few years as a program manager and as a City Year volunteer. She said the volunteers are usually nervous as the school year starts, but as they get more comfortable with the number of students and all the teaching staff, they are able to begin building those relationships with everybody and helping the kids keep focused on their schooling.

Additionally, Lovy said that the students see a direct academic benefit from the program.

“We’ve seen academic gains in terms of student reading levels going up drastically, the daily attendance percentages increasing, and definitely (a smaller) number of suspensions and detentions,” Lovy said.

Kirby said the City Year volunteers start off each morning at the school door, greeting and cheering students as they walk into school.

“They have chants and are cheering kids and telling them it’s great to see them. It’s very encouraging,” Kirby said. “You think these high school students aren’t going to buy into it, and even when our students are walking in barely awake, they can’t help but begin to smile because the energy and enthusiasm is contagious.”

During the school day, the volunteers are helping out in language arts and math classes, working with the teachers to spot kids who are having trouble with their coursework so they can help get those students back on track. They also will be helping monitor attendance or behavior, Kirby said, so they can try to intervene and keep kids out of trouble and on track to graduate.

Although the school year is only a couple weeks old, she said the students and staff already miss the City Year volunteers during their training days every other Friday, during which all eight volunteers are absent from the school.

Once the initial settling-in phase is complete, Kirby said the volunteers are going to begin sponsoring after-school activities, such as a parent night, school beautification efforts and healthy activities.

Lovy said some other big activities the volunteers have planned include a health and wellness event, a literacy event, and a college- and career-readiness day. She said the volunteers brainstorm smaller activities to recognize students who have made noteworthy academic achievements.

“These young adults are so full of energy and optimism and a drive to help these students. They’ve been very refreshing,” she said. “It’s been a great start to the year. They were so eager to get in here and meet the teachers; even before school started, they wanted to get in here and start building a relationship with us.”

Jared Lincoln, a first-year City Year volunteer, said he decided to join up since he had a year break between his undergrad and graduate school plans. He said that while he was nervous his first day, as he’s settled in, it has become less stressful, and he looks forward to working with the students.

“Right now, I just want to work with the kids,” he said. “These kids may not normally pay attention to a lesson, but when they’re working with us, they’ll pay attention and get engaged. That’s been the highlight for me so far.”

Kirby said there is interest in continuing the program beyond this school year, but that is predicated on what the district’s budget looks like going forward.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Kevin Bunch at kbunch@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1030.