“I promised I would be at their senior graduation.” Emily Perkins made that promise to her 10 ninth grade East Technical High School girls almost four years ago.

In 2012, Emily was 23 years-old and had just made a life altering career decision. She decided to leave her promising career in chemical engineering to become a City Year AmeriCorps member and serve for 10 months in a high-poverty urban school. Emily walked into East Technical High School not knowing where this next step was going to take her in life. What she found was a room full of teenage girls who ended up changing her life.

“When I came to City Year, it was the first thing I had ever done where I could give absolutely all of myself and reach every single piece of my potential and still go home at night wanting to do more and to be better; still thinking I still had fallen short of what my students deserved,” said Perkins.

There’s a gap between what schools have been historically designed and resourced to do, and what students need. Many students need more support than even the best teachers and administrators have the resources to provide – students need support from schools and community partners. City Year helps bridge this gap. City Year AmeriCorps members provide full-time, individualized attention to children and promote a positive culture throughout the whole school.

In Emily’s first year she met and worked with ten exceptional female 9th grade students as an AmeriCorps member. Kerra was one of those students.

Kerra* and Emily had a rough start. She didn’t want to have anything to do with Emily. Emily was a new AmeriCorps member and Kerra did not have any interest in the help Emily could provide. This tremulous relationship lasted until Kerra received her first semester grades and saw she was failing. Emily sat down with her and told her, “You are better than this. You know you are better.” It was the first time Kerra engaged with Emily. They spent a whole session talking about Kerra’s aspirations. Together they came up with a plan to get back on track and make the second semester successful. 

They worked together almost every day for the rest of the year. Kerra was able to get her 9th grade English grade up to an ‘A’ that semester. In the 10th grade she was moved to the honors English class. “She learned to advocate for her own education in such a way that she doesn’t need me now. She knows how to ask for the help that she needs,” said Perkins. “When she has a bad day she comes into the City Year room or if she has homework and does not have any space to do it at home, she’ll come sit with me at my desk to complete it before going home. She really learned, starting with that first time seeing her failing report card that she wanted to be successful and learned how to apply herself. She has taken responsibility for her education now. She is now an A student.

Emily came back the next year as a Team Leader to continue her work with her students. She continued to advance her career by joining the City Year Cleveland staff as an Impact Manager in 2014 and was promoted to a Senior Impact Manager in 2015. East Technical High School has seen tremendous results in the last four years. The average GPA has gone from 1.85 to 2.76 and the graduation rate has improved from 39% to 72%. 

Throughout her entire career, Emily maintained her relationships with her original cohort of students. “At the end of my first year, I made my 9th grade girls a promise that I would be at their senior graduation that I’d be there to watch them walk across the stage,” Perkins said. “Even though I have worked at East Technical for three school years, I have never gone to a graduation because I want theirs to be the first that I attend. At the start of every year they come up and remind me of my promise. It is part of what keeps me coming back each year; I’m still here for them and that promise. They know that and they are counting on that.”

Seven out of the ten original girls Emily first worked with improved their grades by at least two letter grades. Six were moved into honors classes their sophomore year and nine of them are still attending East Technical High School and have the credits to graduate on time this spring.

“There is always something more that I could be doing for my students. I keep wanting to advance my career at City Year because my influence grows with the new responsibilities,” said Perkins. “I went from being able to impact 10 students to managing 16 AmeriCorps members who impact over 200 students.”

*The student name has been changed to conceal the identity of the student involved.

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