student achievement

How this Citizen Schools Alumnus is Beating the Odds

Mary Espinosa is a first year student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC). She is an alumnus of Citizen Schools North Carolina. In middle school I didn’t quite realize the situation my peers and I were in. We were first generation Americans in a low-income community. I always knew that some families weren’t from the United States, but at that age I didn’t realize the importance of it.

I was born in California to Mexican parents. We moved to Charlotte, North Carolina in sixth grade where I attended Eastway Middle School. Eastway had a program in the afternoon called Citizen Schools. A lot of my friends were in the program and having fun so I decided to join in seventh grade.

Mary Espinosa

I loved Citizen Schools! I really liked the apprenticeships. They gave me the opportunity to branch out and try new things that I wouldn’t normally try. I’m not very artistic, but the art apprenticeship was my favorite. We painted a huge mural in the school cafeteria which is still there today.

The most meaningful part of Citizen Schools that really changed my life came in eighth grade. In 8th Grade Academy (8GA) we went on college tours all around the state. It was a really valuable experience at such a young age. Learning about college in middle school gave me an idea of what to expect. Going to real colleges motivated me to stay in school and work toward becoming the first person in my family to go to college.

A little over two years ago I co-founded a local youth group and it hit me. The kids we worked with couldn’t afford to go college and didn’t think they could attend. Just like some of the kids at Eastway.

I was one of the lucky ones. After Citizen Schools I definitely felt like I could go to college. Giving us that mentality was very empowering.  I saw the same thing with the youth I worked with. These kids don’t hear that very often. I’m personally glad that I heard it because when I was younger I remember thinking that I couldn’t go to college because it was too expensive. Citizen Schools really helped me reconsider that thought and made me believe that I could.

High School Graduation

Now I’m a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. I am the first person in my family to go to college. My parents are from Mexico and they moved to the United States before I was born. It was a huge deal to them and they’re really proud of me. I have three younger sisters and now I am setting the right example for them.

I am majoring in social work and considering going to law school. I want to help kids who come from immigrant parents have access to college. I do a lot of community work and a lot of organizing around immigrants. I think that if I go into law, I will have a chance to more directly impact the lives of these young people by helping them get into college so that they can work and contribute to the economy and the country.

My message to Citizen Schools students everywhere is to take advantage of the program. Every time you visit a college campus you have to think, “I can be here in a couple of years.” Pay attention, work hard and keep your eyes on the prize. You have to fight the odds. It’s about moving forward and being able to educate yourself. Prove everyone wrong who said, “You can’t do it,” because you can.

It's Not All Rainbows and Sunshine, But it's Worth It

Jessica Eddy is a first year Teaching Fellow with Citizen Schools New York. She delivered this speech at a Citizen Schools New York event. When I was first asked to be tonight's Teaching Fellow speaker, I grappled with one question: How do I be completely honest about my fellowship experience, but leave my listeners with a renewed sense of hope in the work that we do? Most of you can probably relate to this dilemma, as I’m pretty sure you’d agree that our jobs are far from easy, the hours are long, and the roles we play in closing the achievement gap are anything but glamorous. However, after a bit of reflection, I decided that the best way to do this would be to tell you a little bit about where I was at the beginning of the fellowship and where I am today.

Jessica Eddy

My decision to become a Teaching Fellow in New York involved much more than a desire to give back to my community. It also reflected an eagerness to become active in what many have come to refer to as the most pressing civil rights issue of our time. I not only wanted to help students who looked like me get the education I was so fortunate to receive, but I also wanted to be a part of making sure they had access to professional opportunities that would ground their learning and bring more meaning to their school day. I saw an outlet for me to accomplish these things within the Citizen Schools model, and so I decided to sign up.

But, during the very first day of program, on that fateful Thursday, September 6, all of my thoughts about civil rights in education, and justice, and access to professional opportunity, and school day significance were replaced by two very simple words that I’m confident we've all gotten used to hearing: behavior management.

Oh, yes. I will never forget the whirlwind expressions on my co-workers faces during our first post-program meeting when our Campus Director casually asked how everything went. As for me, I was sweating, my body felt like it had been run over by an 18 wheeler, and I was completely stunned by the attitudes these 11 and 12-year-olds carried, most of them half my size.

As the weeks progressed, I would quickly learn that it didn’t stop just at attitudes. I would later explain to my grandmother, “they throw fits, they throw chairs, and they throw each other.” Behavior management? My boss told me I was doing an excellent job but it honestly felt like I was not managing a thing. I felt it, and so did the kids.

Needless to say, the pressure was on, and it began to build. Students’ attitudes and behaviors became worse, our relationship with the school day teachers started to fall apart at the seams, the amount of deadlines outside of the classroom increased, a work life balance did not exist, our campus director resigned, and, to my utter dismay, I began to develop wrinkle lines on my forehead. I was disillusioned and in survival mode, just trying to make it from one day to the next, just trying to prep my lessons and materials, and to stick to my campus schedule the best I could.

And in all honesty, I began to view student achievement as an added bonus to my work, not as my daily goal. “I will help those students who show me they want to be helped. I will teach those who want to learn, and I will help bring opportunity to those open to accepting it.” These were my thoughts, and I didn't care if they meant I was a bad teacher. They helped me navigate what was beginning to feel like a hopeless situation.

It turns out that my discontent was becoming known to everyone, even my supervisors. When I first met my interim supervisor Chad Vignola, he smiled and said “Jessica Eddy, so you’re the one I was told to stop at the end of each day and ask to please stay on board.” I was amused by this remark, and it became an inside joke between Chad and me.

But to date, nothing hit me harder than when one of my students, the extremely mischievous yet completely adorable Joan Cruz, peered up at me with his squinting little eyes and asked, “Ms. Eddy, are you going to leave us? Are you going to quit?” I was floored and had no idea how to respond. “I won’t leave you, Joan,” was all I could muster up.

It was in that moment, for the very first time, that I recognized the value of my work. If nothing else, I came to know that I represent a steady force in students’ lives, someone they look forward to seeing everyday just as much as they look forward to driving crazy, and someone they know will stick it out with them and for them when times are hard.

That one little question showed me just how closely my students were watching me, how accustomed they were getting to having me around (no matter how much they yelled that holding kids hostage until 6 o clock was illegal), and how much they wanted me to help them succeed. I renewed my investment that evening, and planned to make relationship building with my students a more regular part of my plan for their academic and personal success.

I won’t lie to you and say it’s been all rainbows and roses from then on. The work is still incredibly difficult, and finding ways to engage students in all aspects of program presents itself as a daily challenge. But I've seen my students make amazing personal and academic strides just by knowing someone is in their corner, rooting for them, and has no intention of walking away.

As for Joan, his attitude has improved, he can identify math patterns more quickly than he could during first semester, and he is more focused on developing his career as a professional wrestler than I’ve ever seen him. Last week, when I made the announcement that it was time to pack up and put up the chairs, he yelled out, “No! I don’t want to leave Citizen Schools right now!” “Joan, I’m going to have to record you saying that,” I said, beaming. But what I probably meant to say was, “I don’t want to leave just yet, either.”

This work is hard. But the impact is real. Join Jessica Eddy and incredible class of Teaching Fellows, and change lives. Apply to the National Teaching Fellowship today. 

A Life-Changing Impact

Jin Ellington is the Campus Director at  Lowe's Grove Middle School in Durham, NC. Under Jin's leadership, Lowe's Grove won Citizen Schools' 'Most Improved Campus' Award in 2010. She joined the Citizen Schools Teaching Fellowship after graduating Duke University in 2008. 

Robert is an unforgettable student.

He’s one of those people that the first time you meet him, you automatically know that you will like him. This is largely due in part to his personality – outgoing, genuine, and absolutely hilarious! (If you could compare Robert to any celebrity, it would be Chris Farley).

On top of that, he is also an amazing public speaker who is the most articulate and poised 8th grader you will ever meet. And finally, add to the mix the fact that he’s an A/B student who gets his homework done, participates in lessons, leads his fellow classmates, and supports other students, you have the perfect student all teachers dream of having.

So needless to say, I was in absolute shock the day his mother explained to me that it wasn’t always so. Robert was once a fairly shy young man who wasn’t very confident in his leadership abilities. Not only that, but he started middle school with C’s and D’s. She shared with me that in 6th grade, he would come home afterschool and attempt to complete his homework, though most of the time rather unsuccessfully. Then when she arrived home after work, they would continue to work together – sometimes until midnight when they would finally call it quits, completed or not, because it was just too late. Throughout that year, tears fell, arguments ensued, energies expended, and still the results did not improve.

According to Robert’s mom, Citizen Schools was the changing factor. It provided him the academic support he needed to get his homework done on time and with quality. The program also provided him the opportunity to explore different careers through the apprenticeships and to develop his confidence with oral presentation opportunities.

Citizen Schools can be and is a transformative experience for students. All students have the potential; some just need a little extra push to set them on the path to achieving their dreams.

Do you want to help put students like Robert on the path to success? Consider applying for the Teaching Fellowship, a life-changing experience for you and students.