By Zac Miller, Corps Member, AT&T Team at Thomas Jefferson High School

My name is Zac Miller.  I serve with City Year as a corps member on the AT&T Team at Thomas Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles, and if you’ll bear with me for just a moment, I’d like to talk about some of the challenges my students face on a daily basis.

Jefferson High School is central to nearly twenty liquor stores but just a single public library. Every morning, students walk to school down unkempt, litter-strewn sidewalks, across overly pockmarked streets, and into a building where curses and racial epithets seem to make up just as much of the ambiance as anything educational. Although students at Thomas Jefferson do not have the most ideal environment for learning, this is not something that gets in their way. I have experienced first-hand many examples of students who have overcome these distractions and pitfalls and in the end, have excelled. I would like to tell you about one story in particular.

I work with a young man named Jonathan. He popped into Jefferson midway through the first semester and was thrust into my already overcrowded Algebra class.  My first real conversation with him came after he’d had a confrontation with another student, and wild punches were thrown.  I remember him sobbing about how much he hated his new school, and how unfair life had been to him.

I started working with Jonathan a little more closely after that.  Like many students at Jefferson, Jonathan struggled academically, particularly with math.  He lacked the foundational skills that are utterly necessary to succeed in Algebra and beyond: he’d memorized no multiplication tables, had learned no rules of 10, and saw no association between fractions, decimals, ratios and rates.  I encouraged him to come to the City Year after school program, where I was able to deliver 1-on-1 tutoring that built foundational math skills while staying relevant to the more advanced content of his Algebra class.

Jonathan has been coming to City Year’s After School Program every day for nearly three months now.  He now has a 103% in Algebra, but that percentage doesn’t even begin to speak to the immense gains he has demonstrated in creative thought and analytical problem solving. Jonathan is learning to use math as a tool, rather than memorizing procedures and formulas.

I came to City Year with the expectation that every student I worked with would end up with great grades, but it wasn’t long before the suffocating realism of the dropout crisis threatened to replace that idealism with a cold cynicism.  Working with students like Jonathan keeps me grounded.  Seeing his progress reminds me that even if I don’t reach all my kids, I’ll have made a difference to at least one, and that will have made this entire year worth it.

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