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City Year corps member Samantha Altamirano’s day starts at 7:30 a.m. Unlike most of humanity at this hour, she looks alert, excited, and ready to greet the day – a day that will be filled with middle school students, at that.
Altamirano and the other corps members meet for a team huddle and energize themselves for the day. Like every other day at Davis Middle School, they will need to bring their best, most patient, most proactive selves.
City Year is a branch of AmeriCorps. The corps members sign on for at least 11 months of “whole school, whole child” service. Corps members may serve up to four total terms, or until they are 26 years old, with any AmeriCorps organization, including City Year. Their fresh energy allows the kind of ultra-engaged, high-touch mentorship and case management schools need as they create a supportive community for kids who show early indicators of becoming “at-risk.”
Most mornings, as students arrive, the eight members of the Davis City Year corps hit the sidewalk, cheering, high-fiving, and welcoming kids to school.
“Power Greeting is one of our myriad ‘Power Tools’ that we employ to mobilize and inspire our corps and students at the start of the school day to set the tone,” City Year San Antonio Chief of Staff Amanda Kelly said. “The schoolhouse is a place where students should enter happily and confidently, and Power Greeting is just one of the many ways by which AmeriCorps members promote this culture in the school community.”
The rest of the day is back-to-back action. Altamirano has been paired with two teachers for the year, and she manages her own caseload as well.
When City Year meets with teachers and administrators to assess which students will make up their caseload, they use the ABCs: attendance, behavior, and course work.
Students struggling with attendance and behavior fall under Tier One intervention. Tier One happens in the classroom, as the City Year corps members help teachers differentiate instruction, lead small groups, and navigate around potential distractions.
“Every week we set goals with our attendance and behavior students,” Altamirano explained.
Of course behavior in middle school is hard to track. It can be tough to pick out the warning signs amid the usual ups and downs.
On the day of our visit, Danielle Miller’s 7th-grade English class is particularly squirmy. One student wanders around with his hoodie on backwards. Several kids drum on their desks and stare anywhere but at their teacher. One student tests how far back he can lean in his chair.
The lesson plan includes open-ended critical thinking, debate, group work, and dry erase makers. The potential for chaos is high.
Miller and Altamirano work like a beach volleyball team as they keep the lesson moving with seamless, intuitive teamwork. Miller delivers the formal instruction, while Altamirano passes out supplies, answers a knock at the door, and constantly tethers students’ attention.
“There is a level of maturity that is required (for City Year corps members),” Miller said.
One student in particular has a track record of disruption, emotional outbursts, and defiance. Altamirano sits with her in the back of the class, talking her through what Miller is teaching. She keeps the student as focused as she can, anticipates problem scenarios, and at one point, keeps her from drawing on the furniture.
“Ms. Sammy,” as the students call her, is petite. She is smaller than many of the students, but it’s clear that they respect her.
Miller leads the class in a brain-building game in which students must raise one finger at a time. Altamirano’s partner immediately raises her middle finger.
“No, girl. Put that down,” Altamirano says in a sisterly tone.
She calls this “warm-strict.” A lot of the kids in Altamirano’s caseload tell her about a home environment where adults yell and disparage them. The stress of poverty can wear away at reserves of parental patience. Some parents talk to their kids the way their parents talked to them.
“I don’t want it to be like that when they come to school,” Altamirano said.
At the end of class Altamirano guards the door and collects “exit tickets” – a final, single-sentence assignment that sums up the day’s lesson.
One student makes a break for the door with no exit ticket. Altamirano stops him and reroutes him.
“I need to talk to your mom. Lately you’ve been doing this a lot,” Altamirano said.
City Year corps members know how to activate support throughout the students’ networks. Involved parents are great allies, and the corps members serve as valuable extra eyes to enable communication.
The next two class periods will make up Altamirano’s Tier Two interventions. These are students struggling with course work. Once a week, each of Altamirano’s thirteen Tier Two students meet with her for one-on-one tutoring and mentorship.
“Sometimes kids just want to sit there and tell you what’s been on their minds,” Altamirano said.
Davis Middle School has a longstanding relationship with City Year, so teachers are understanding about Tier Two students being pulled out of class. Altamirano tries to keep “pull-outs” limited to electives, as missing core subjects is not an option.
Before Altamirano can begin tutoring, she has to make it to the City Year room across campus, which can take a while, as students frequently stop her to discuss whatever is on their mind.
The other side of Tier One intervention – helping students with attendance and behavior – happens in the hallways, between classes, before and after school. As she walks to the City Year room where the corps members keep their supplies and meet with students, she chats with kids from her Tier One list.
Altamirano is cool. She’s not overly cheery; she’s buoyant. She’s not aggressive; she’s magnetic. She’s unflappable. Students are visibly happy to see her.
“The thing I really appreciate is that she’s able to have a relationship with the kids that I don’t,” Miller said.
As we walk, the bell rings and students disappear from the hallways. Then, out of nowhere, a tall boy appears.
“You better get to class!” Altamirano says in her warm-strict voice.
The student makes excuses and tries to brush Altamirano off. Keeping it light, we escort the boy to class in spite of his protests that, “We’re not doing nothing in class today, miss!”
After two tutoring sessions and a quick lunch, it’s back to Miller’s room for the planning period.
Miller and Altamirano go through attendance issues for Altamirano’s Tier One students. Could it be boy problems? Responsibilities at home? Altamirano is up to date on students’ social lives and how it affects their commitment to school.
Some of the cases reflect chronic problems. Negative peer influences, financial instability, and disengagement manifest strongly in the middle school years, as students transition out of childhood into adolescence. The stresses and responsibilities of students in low-income situations intensify as they become old enough to work or care for siblings.
Davis, like most schools in SAISD, has a free and reduced lunch rate of more than 90%.
Poverty creates its own challenges, but Miller has also observed that many times unstable family structures keep kids from acquiring tools to handle “regular middle school drama.”
“The level of anxiety and emotion on this campus is extremely high,” Miller said. “After the election, kids were punching the lockers.”
Next, Miller runs some new tech-heavy curriculum by Altamirano to help her prepare for what’s coming after Thanksgiving break.
Altamirano has to know how to help students with their course work, and anticipates problems that might pop up. The more technology is built into the curriculum, the more strategic Miller and Altamirano have to be. Not every child at Davis has access to the internet at home. They have to select projects and programs that can be accessed from phones or the classroom iPads, and allowing students to use phones and iPads in class brings up a whole new realm of potential disruption.
Miller pitches another project that she wants to do the next day. Altamirano’s wheels start turning to figure out how to efficiently prepare the supplies they will need. It will be the Friday before Thanksgiving break, the kind of day teachers dread the most.
“Tomorrow is just about keeping the kids moving. It’s going to be insane,” Miller says.
Altamirano’s next two class periods are spent doing Tier One intervention with a teacher in her first year at Davis. The learning curve for teachers in high-poverty schools is steep. Altamirano knows that, so she lends all the support she can.
After school, the City Year corps hosts clubs and activities for students. On the day I visited, the sixth grade aquarium club had its weekly meeting. One City Year corps member happens to be a marine life and aquarium enthusiast, and he shares that love with the students. The sixth graders enjoy outfitting and maintaining their aquariums.
Activities like these help students build constructive skills, like taking responsibility. At the same time, they introduce age appropriate interests so that 11- and 12-year-olds can enjoy the last years of their childhood.
It’s after 5 p.m. by the time Altamirano calls it a day. From the smile on her face and the twinkle in her eye, you’d never guess she has been “on” since 7:30 a.m., walking the line between friend and authority figure, between teammate and helper. And tomorrow, she’s going to do it all over again.