By Serena Accomazzi '15, Senior AmeriCorps member serving on the Westfield Capital Management team with the Mildred Avenue K-8 School

On Friday, October 28, City Year Boston welcomed 450 women leaders, innovators, and change agents at our eighth Annual Women’s Leadership Breakfast. Below are the remarks made by our featured speaker: Serena Accomazzi, who served as a City Year AmeriCorps member at the Mildred Avenue K-8 School in 2015 and returned this year as a Team Leader.

Serena Accomazzi: For a bit of background, I grew up right here in Boston, just up the road in the North End and I finished high school in Newton. Growing up, our family emphasized Jewish culture and values -- community service, and tikkun olam -- the idea of repairing the world and giving back what you were fortunate to receive.

My mom especially was a strong female presence for me and my sister and she is, without a doubt, my biggest role model. She is a guidance counselor for students who are deaf and hard of hearing at my high school. So from an early age, education played a large role in my life. But beyond that, my mom instilled in us a sense of compassion and raised us among a network of friends and family with different abilities and backgrounds. She equipped us with independence, empathy, and self-advocacy, and enabled me to grow into the woman I am today.

Upon completing college, I knew that service and education would be part of my next steps and I wanted to invest in the community I grew up in. I wanted to work directly with students, but I didn’t feel prepared to lead a classroom by myself. After looking at a few AmeriCorps programs, City Year really spoke to me and I connected with the idea of being part of a national movement that was working toward educational equity.

I arrived at City Year in August along with more than 200 fellow corps members ready to serve. After six weeks of intensive training, I entered the halls of the Mildred school. I served with 6th, 7th, and 8th graders and they were so much fun. Not only were many of them taller than me, but I felt like they were more sophisticated than I ever was at that age. They had amazing self-expression in their choice of fashion and loved music, sports, and joking around with me.

My role as a corps member was to support my students in 3 key areas – what we call the ABCs -attendance, behavior, and coursework. Students rely on us to support them before the first bell rings until the last one goes home. 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, but also to check if homework is done or they had a good night's sleep. If they weren't there, we'd call home to make sure they had a reliable way to get to school and to set goals with the whole family for attendance. They would never admit it, but students secretly love morning greeting and I'd get a kick out of hearing them quietly humming "City Year is whaaat? Red Hot!"

After morning greeting, I'd head to math class, where we'd break out into small groups or individual sessions so that I could give 1:1 attention to students who might not understand a concept, or who might process better with a different kind of activity. After lunch and more class, we'd end the day with our afterschool program, providing homework help and fun activities for students to explore other interests.

My partner teacher Mr. Chew and I had a great working relationship and he trusted me in managing our class. I was able to provide individual support to students as a different kind of near-peer mentor, and he could keep the lesson on track for the whole class. I developed relationships with students and saw small things that would be easy to miss, and together we made sure students were receiving the right kind of instruction and attention.

The one student that stands out for me the most is Jack. He was such a funny kid. He was tall and lanky and almost like a puppy growing into his size. He used his body a lot and was a very kinesthetic learner, but that also meant he could be really impulsive. In the first few weeks of school, he had already gotten into a couple fights and had beef with another kid in class. It was clear that his behavior was getting in the way of concentrating on what we were learning. The great thing is that my school is not big on suspensions, so I was able to have facetime with him to figure out how to work with him.

I made sure to check in with him every day so that he knew I wasn't there to yell, but to listen. He loved basketball, and he especially loved beating me in basketball, so recess was my time to get to know him better as a person. Gradually we developed a relationship and I discovered that he was a natural learner. I would sit down next to him to go over a math problem, and once he mastered a concept, it was like a spark was lit within him. He absolutely loved helping out other classmates, and occasionally I would send him to another group to be "the teacher."

And after we built that relationship, it was easier to break down other barriers. I gave him a stress ball so that he could work out his excess energy and control some of those impulses. Later on in the year he would often come up to the City Year team space and eat lunch with me and we'd practice breathing exercises. Slowly but surely, I started to see him walk away from arguments, whereas at the beginning of the year he would have engaged.

With that 1:1 attention and new behavior skills, he grew as a student and matured so much over the course of the year. He increased his scores on each test and ended the year with a B in the class. And right before we left in June, he told me that he got into a new program for emerging young leaders. He had a blast over the summer and it was one of my proudest moments seeing him be recognized for his hard work.

Jack's story stands out to me, but there are many other stories of students who grew with City Year's support. In fact, all of the seven students who I tutored in math improved their grades by the end of the year.

But I'd say the "secret sauce" with City Year is that it's not just about academics; it's about supporting the whole school and the whole child. Students' academic progress doesn't exist in a vacuum and they need many types of support to succeed.

My weekly lunch group with the girls from my class was clear evidence of that. Middle school can be a tough time, especially for girls, so we'd use lunch to discuss things they wanted to talk about, like confidence and self-image.

One of their favorites was watching Beyonce’s video "Pretty Hurts" and hearing from a woman of color who looks like them talk about the pressure of looking a certain way. A lot of these conversations would continue in City Year's afterschool program. Many of them belonged to a Haitian culture club and they would teach me Creole and helped organize a potluck. Gradually I saw that those chats over lunch were building real social-emotional skills that were critical to them doing well inside- and outside - the classroom. They were already comfortable in their own skin, but it was the best feeling seeing them take on leadership positions in this club to celebrate their identities.

This mix of tutoring and mentoring is why the Mildred school really values our service. Four years ago, the Mildred was in turnaround status, but because of the hard work of the students, principal, Mr. Rollins - who is here today - teachers, families, and City Year, I am proud to tell you that last month it was announced that the Mildred had risen to Level 1 status, the highest level a school can obtain. 

I came back this year to be a mentor and role model to my team. I benefited immensely from strong leadership last year with my team leader, Gene’a. She was the type of leader I aspire to be -- she always pushed us to think about the human aspect in everything we did. She looked at our service through a critical lens and committed our entire team to improving upon it.

As I look toward the future, I will take with me countless lessons from City Year. I came to City Year looking to find answers. I found many, but this experience also gave me a lot more questions. It clarified for me that my heart is in education, but I'm still determining if my role is leading a classroom, or perhaps counseling in school or working for a nonprofit.

But most importantly, I value my City Year and AmeriCorps experience because it pushed me to no end. In a single year, I have done so much that I never thought I was capable of doing. While I have been afforded many privileges in my life, my corps year made me realize I had so much more to learn. City Year taught me to lead with humility, and I think especially in these challenging times, everyone could use a higher dose of that. There is an empathy gap in our country that I very much believe national service can help bridge. I will carry these experiences with me long after I hang up my red jacket.

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