Allison Felder oversees the service of all 156 City Year AmeriCorps members in 13 Washington D.C. schools. She served as an AmeriCorps member several years ago at a school in San Antonio, Texas, but has been in Washington, D.C. for the past five years. From the sunlit conference room of the City Year D.C. office in a building just north of Dupont Circle, she explains that the students who are the farthest behind academically are often the ones who act out, because they’re frustrated. She says that its often times easier to punish that bad behavior – whether it’s yelling out in class or being disrespectful to teachers – than it is to help students learn the skills that prevent them from acting out in the first place.
As “near-peers” – older than the students, but younger than the teachers – AmeriCorps members are uniquely positioned to build relationships with students, and help them develop those skills. City Year helps a school expand its capacity for SEL, by supporting and adding to the interventions school staff are doing already. In class, AmeriCorps members recognize kids for doing the right thing – staying focused on an exercise, raising their hands, participating productively – and give the kids who are struggling an outlet to vent their frustrations. To help kids stay calm and centered, corps members might guide students through a deep-breathing exercise, remind them to count to 10, or take them for walk down the hall. City Year also creates public celebrations, including collages of paper cutout rocket ships and stars and smiley faces – each one featuring a student’s name – taped to the wall in high traffic areas, to give kids’ attention for positive behavior. At Kelly Miller, City Year AmeriCorps members also staff the school store, which operates on “pride bucks,” the currency students earn when they exemplify the school creed: being respectable, responsible and ready. Corps members love catching kids in the act of doing something good. They say the little things – holding the door open for someone, retrieving a teacher’s dropped pencil, raising a hand in class – add up.