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Hidden figures: The corps of young people helping build stronger educational networks

February 11, 2021 Category: FeaturedMediumPeople

Disclosures

This guest column was written by Darryl Bundrige, the executive director of education nonprofit City Year Philadelphia.
Would we create a more just society, and make faster progress to dismantle the inequities in our education system, if more of us were dedicated to ensuring every student had a strong school support network made up of people who believe in their potential, understand their struggles and celebrate their triumphs?

The answer is clear if you look at the difference AmeriCorps members are making in classrooms across our city during the pandemic, and measure their impact by how often they help students feel more comfortable and confident navigating the hurdles and opportunities of traditional classrooms versus virtual learning at home.

You may know AmeriCorps is a network of national service programs, and how City Year recruits young adults to serve fulltime as AmeriCorps members in public schools.

“The world may not realize how important these corps members are to schools, but our teachers and students do,’’ said Dr. Evelyn Nuñez, chief of schools in Philadelphia. “They help make students feel like they’re still part of a community, and that they’re seen and heard.’’

Here I’ll highlight two of the many AmeriCorps members working diligently in our city’s classrooms. Both were serving when schools closed last spring, and both returned in the fall for a second year of service — despite not knowing whether they’d ever spend time with students face-to-face.

Philadelphia native Minh Vu, 23, saw AmeriCorps as an opportunity to give back to the community where she grew up after earning her bachelor’s degree at Villanova University.

She was in classrooms fulltime at the Olney Elementary School last spring when COVID-19 forced schools to close and left many families without the tools to access online learning. Vu was part of school teams reaching out to parents, many with multiple students under one roof, to help them secure laptops and internet access necessary for distance learning.

She returned to Olney this fall to lead a team of fellow corps members.

She is collaborating with teachers in virtual classrooms, where she answers questions in the chatbox during online lessons, and tutors and mentors students in small groups. Vu also helps bring together students and corps members for virtual lunches, and helps run virtual after-school spaces where students can get homework help — and see friends they’ve missed.

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“There’s no longer a way to say `hi’ in the hallways or at recess, so these connections are really meaningful,’’ Vu said.

Ciera Martin, 24, leads an AmeriCorps team at the Alexander McClure Elementary School, where she’s taking advantage of virtual learning to engage students through one of their favorite mediums — video.

She created YouTube videos during Black History Month that feature achievers like Muhammad Ali and playwright Lorraine Hansberry in a series that challenges students to answer `Who am I?’ using a handful of clues. The short clips have become a springboard for debate and discussion among students before teachers reveal the answer during the virtual school day.

Martin, a graduate of Penn State who grew up and lives in North Philadelphia not far from McClure Elementary, is already planning a new series for Women’s History Month. “Combining the ideas of learning and games means the information sticks in their heads,’’ she says.

These creative young leaders — both of whom are considering careers in teaching — are using their time and talent to create a more equitable society.

They are our hidden figures.

Like them, we need to understand the importance of building stronger school support networks for students — and teachers — if we want a brighter post-pandemic future for our city.

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