EDITOR’S NOTE: Our Education Channel is launching early next week but I didn’t want to wait to share this with you. Here’s why: If you are watching Morning Joe’s volunteer show in New Orleans tomorrow morning, talking about City Year, this is what it is. It’s the first post by new blogger Erin Polgreen.
I first met Michael Fisher in 2004. We were both Senior Corps members for the Chicago branch of international non-profit City Year, which provides literacy tutoring and after school programming in Chicago Public schools. Michael has now been involved with City Year Chicago for six years, and has worked in almost every part of the organization. He currently manages two teams of corps members at the Johnson School of Excellence and the Bethune School of Excellence in Chicago’s Lawndale community.
We chatted over email about his role at City Year and how national service programs like it are helping reform the U.S. education system from the outside in.
Tell me about your day-to-day duties.
I lead two teams of AmeriCorps members in service to Chicago Public Schools (specifically in the Lawndale neighborhood). For the ten months of the academic calendar, my team members provide academic support to students, lead after school programs, and serve as positive role models for Chicago’s youth.
In an environment that has seen such a terrible increase in violence amongst school-aged youth, the role that the corps members play is critical. Much of my role is helping corps members navigate through the challenges of their year of service. Service can often be an emotionally challenging experience. Providing perspective, positing creative solutions, and helping corps members learn and grow through their experiences is the part of the job that I enjoy the most.
What role does your work play in education reform?
In my opinion, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) should be highly commended for their continued commitment to searching for pragmatic solutions. Youth deserve an excellent education and I think non-profits can play an important role. CPS deals with state funding structures that create a significant (and widening) gap in quality between what urban and suburban districts can provide their youth. The role that nonprofits and other external agencies play is essentially to be a part of the creative solutions geared towards bridging that gap on a day-to-day and student-by-student basis. What we can do as a non-profit is provide excellent service at a cost to the schools that makes fiscal sense.
On one hand, as a non-profit, it can be discouraging to constantly feel like we’re working in an environment of limited resources. On the other, it’s exciting to be a part of such a creative, collaborative, and committed team of educators who share a vision with CPS of …providing Chicago’s youth with a quality educational experience.
Tell me about an “A-ha!” moment that dramatically changed your perception or inspired you.
My “A-ha!” moment occurred while walking home from a day of service in 2004 at Daley Academy. It was perhaps early March, still cold, still gray, and I still had an hour long commute home. … While walking to the bus stop I began thinking about how happy I was. Despite working long hours for incredibly little pay, I didn’t regret a single day of it.
That was inspiring for me, recognizing that I had found alignment between what I wanted to do, what I was capable of doing, and the the opportunity to actually do it. City Year has allowed me to understand and experience the lesson that our parents, mentors, and teachers always taught us: “When you’re working at something you really love, it doesn’t feel like work.”
City Year focuses both on schools and communities. How does school and education reform play into community development?
We do focus on both simultaneously, we have to. What City Year does is progressive because it takes a strategically holistic view of students, schools and communities. Through our Whole School, Whole Child service model, we’re identifying the students who are most at risk of trouble (e.g. dropping out of high school) and our corps members provide targeted interventions around behavior, attendance and course performance. Our effort is focused on keeping kids in school, and on track to graduate from high school.
This type of service to the education system is important, and is linked to community development in a few critical ways.
First, it’s easy to recognize that an education pays — literally. After an incredibly short google search I’m seeing that someone with a Master’s makes $31.9K more per year than someone with just a HS diploma. The value of putting young people in the position to graduate high school, earn a living wage and provide for their families can’t be understated. Education is an economic engine. It always has been and will continue to be the leading factor that determines individual wealth and in turn, community health.
Second, schools (especially in urban communities) are becoming genuine civic centers. Schools are becoming a place where students receive their education, consistent meals, social services, and after-school mentoring and leadership opportunities (like what we offer through our Starfish Corps after-school program.) … Society has placed a heavy and daunting burden upon the school system. Reform geared towards creating schools that can meet so many of the diverse needs of urban communities is both compelling and challenging.
When programs like ours implement a holistic view of students, schools and communities, we’re acknowledging that they are inseparable and require a new approach to change. Focusing on just the academics, or just the school culture, or just parental engagement hasn’t worked and won’t work. A holistic perspective needs to be taken early in the planning stage of new schools, and the implementation of services needs to reflect this thinking in order for large scale and lasting community change to take place.
Photo by Jennifer Cogswell with permission from City Year Chicago
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