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How one City Year team performs virtual service

City Year AmeriCorps member tutors and mentors students

All the ritual and planning that usually happens in schools during the month of March—looking forward to spring break, watching March madness basketball tournaments, gearing up for annual testing—was upended this year with the outbreak of COVID-19.

A team of AmeriCorps members serving with City Year Cleveland at John Adams College and Career Academy diligently worked on their plans to celebrate Pi Day—a celebration of the number 3.14 that takes place each March 14. But because the date fell on a weekend this year, the AmeriCorps members were planning to celebrate on March 12, the same day Ohio Gov. DeWine announced a statewide school closure due to growing concerns over the spread of the global pandemic. Though we know now that schools across the country are closed for the remainder of the academic year, at the time, there was still widespread uncertainty about how long these closures might last. AmeriCorps member Sarah Beveridge remembers that day clearly.

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“In speaking with our school administrators about if we should proceed with our Pi Day plans, they said something that sticks with me, even now,” Sarah says. “They said for many students, the school is a reliable and safe space. If the students won’t have access to the school for the foreseeable future, then we should make one of their last days as fun and enriching as possible. And so that’s what we tried our best to do.”

More than 40 students participated in a day of fun, interactive math centered activities. As students completed each math station, they collected raffle tickets. At the end of the day, if their ticket was drawn, the student was able to toss a whipped cream pie in the face of any AmeriCorps member they wanted. For the team, this last bittersweet moment with their students was the perfect way to say goodbye.

Transition to virtual service

The following week marked the start of a challenging new environment for the team as students began distance learning and AmeriCorps members began virtual service. Impact Manager, Jessica Walsh-Frazer—whose job is to support the development of AmeriCorps members and help them navigate the school environment and track student progress—remembers asking herself a series of questions.

“Now that we’re unable to meet in person, how do I keep team morale up when there’s so much unknown?” Jessica says. “And on top of that, how do we make sure we’re still serving our students?”

With so many factors up in the air and out of the team’s hands, those were tough questions to answer. But while navigating this limbo was a challenge, the team did have a few things working in their favor. As a close-knit team, they had a strong foundation and Jessica tried to maintain that feeling through the transition. She prioritized having virtual First and Final Circles—spaces where City Year teams typically share joys and successes, go over their schedule for the day and discuss anything that’s on-deck for the following day. Jessica also kept weekly check-ins with each of her corps members to provide an additional, individualized support.

And finally, Jessica came up with the acronym, GOALS, to help guide their team and set expectations for the transition and for the rest of the school year as it became clearer that they would not be returning to the classroom. GOALS stands for Gritty in Our own environment, Accountable, Loyal and—most importantly—Students first.

“It’s really been a great way for us to stay connected, lift each other up and continue to build on the incredibly strong relationship that we already had,” Jessica says.

Fall break service City Year AmeriCorps

Staying connected to student learning via Instagram

While acclimating to their new service reality, the team took some time to step back and brainstorm ways to stay connected to their students. That’s when one team member proposed the idea of contributing the school’s pre-existing Instagram page. Since the school closure, teachers and school administration had been using the page to post messages to students regarding virtual learning, school meal pick up, SAT prep tips, and small but fun mini-lessons and math problems that students could complete on their own. The team figured that creating and contributing content for the Instagram page would be a perfect way to engage with their students.

Sarah, who had some design experience, was tapped to create the template with the signature City Year red and yellow colors for all of the team’s original content—this way any student scrolling through the page would know that the post was from their City Year team.

“Our goal was engagement. We asked ourselves, ‘How can we make this interesting even for students who don’t necessarily like the subject matter.” Sarah said.

From that point, each team member came up with ways they would contribute content to the page.

Like all other AmeriCorps members of the team, Kai Flowers, was excited to get to work—she knew exactly what she wanted to do. Having spent the year bonding and building strong relationships with her students over their mutual love for anime, Kai created her own series called “Down the Rabbit Hole,” which she illustrates and writes herself. The series gives book recommendations for students looking for enriching ways to keep their minds occupied while they’re in the house.

“Creating this content is special to me because it’s a creative way to continue the organic relationships we already have with our students. I hope it shows them that even through the computer or phone screen, that there is a whole community of people who care about them and their learning,” Kai says.

Toneia Deadwiley, another team member, has her bachelor’s degree in Social Work and plans to pursue a master’s degree in the same field come fall. She has been using the Instagram platform to talk to students about mental health and wellbeing.

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Learn more about how City Year supports AmeriCorps member mental health and wellbeing.

“Through this whole experience, I want my students to know that in times like these, it’s always to ask for help from an adult or someone close to you,” says Toniea. “It’s normal to feel sad about staying in the house and not being able to see friends and other loved ones; and it’s okay to set healthy boundaries and know your limits. And those are the kind of messages I want to send through our Instagram posts and videos.”

In addition to the content that Kai and Toniea have created, the team “Way Back Wednesdays with Liam,” in which they discuss a relevant topic in history. There’s also “CELL-ebrate Science with Christina,” and “Math Mondays with Sarah,” with each corps member brining their unique personality and subject focus to the table.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the support of the school staff and administration. The principal’s standards for students and the City Year team are high and she personally reviews all content before it is posted to the Instagram page. And Jessica, the teams Impact Manager, says that this careful collaboration is just a continuation of the strong partnerships they had with the school before transitioning to virtual service.

Learning with City Year Cleveland

City Year Cleveland virtual learning

Moving towards the end of service

Scrolling through the page, you see comments from students and teachers saying things like, “I miss you, Ms. Sarah!” or “This was pretty cool!” And at a time when the team is unable to have person-to-person interaction, those comments are evidence that what they’re doing is working—all their fun and creative effort is showing their school community how much they care.

“After leaving the school, it could have been easy for the team to give up and say, ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do now.’ But I’m proud of my team for challenging themselves to frame this really difficult situation as a learning opportunity. Everyone on the team has stepped up and contributed in some way,” Jessica says.

And though it’s clear that they won’t get an opportunity to return to the classroom this year, she still has positive words for their students who are facing months of learning loss and in an uncertain future.

“It’s important, now more than ever, to advocate for yourself and your learning process. If you don’t feel like you’re getting the kind of education you deserve, then say something. These are always opportunities to speak up—you may not know where it’s going to land but having a voice in your education matters.”

The road back to some semblance of normalcy for students and school communities won’t be easy. But it’s encouraging to know that when that time comes, for some students, there will be a City Year team dedicated to finding creative learning solutions, no matter the circumstances—just like the team at John Adams College and Career Academy.

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