I leave my house at 5 a.m., take three VIA buses, walk four blocks later, and arrive by 7:30 a.m. Every morning, I walk through dimly lit streets, the sun not yet peeking out over the bungalows and businesses still at rest. I see many things: parents walking their children to school, broken glass and trash littering the streets, and one small flower and gift shop after the other – most of them not open for several more hours – as I make my way to Jeremiah Rhodes Middle School.

This is the start of my service day as a City Year San Antonio AmeriCorps member. I have been in service for just over four months.

Many people ask how I ended up here. I graduated from college with a degree in Community Leadership & Development, knowing I wanted to work with a nonprofit focused on disability or youth. After many months of searching, a friend told me about an amazing experience with City Year. I began my research and quickly applied, making sure to click “Serve Where Most Needed” on my application.

I was offered a Corps Member position in San Antonio, Texas. I saw it as an amazing opportunity to gain experience, explore the country, grow my network, and know with certainty if teaching children would be part of my future. I was thrilled to move out of the freezing, snowy tundra of Wisconsin, and after an amazing cross-country trip with my family, my life in San Antonio began.

Not long after my arrival, I went through City Year’s Basic Training Academy with 88 other corps members from all over the country, and we were eventually placed in our seven school teams for the year. My fellow teammates and I are serving 11 months at Rhodes Middle School, and the adventure has only just begun. We are full-time tutors and mentors, supporting schools with the implementation of City Year’s Whole School, Whole Child service model.

With more than 90% of San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, and more than 60% in need of intervention services, schools have an overwhelming task in front of them. My teammates and I help close that gap, serving as near-peer role models who work with students who may be up to two or more grade levels behind.

Davis Middle School City Year team members meet for a morning meeting before school starts.
Davis Middle School City Year team members meet for a morning meeting before school starts. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

When people ask me what my job entails, the answer changes depending on the day. On a good day I tutor students who struggle in English class and who need more undivided, individualized, differentiated attention to understand their lessons’ concepts. On a less-than-perfect day, I feel more like a nagging mom, but I do everything I can to make learning fun. I tutor 20 to 30 students who are struggling with attendance, behavior, or coursework.

I am especially excited about my coursework students. Having them on my focus list – the list of students every corps member is paired to work with – means that I get to know them on an deeper level, and make their learning experience more exciting and less complicated. My role is to better prepare them for the future as they move on to the 7th grade. Many students are at risk of not making it to the next grade the first time around, especially when they’re additionally daunted by the social dynamics of their first year in middle school.

One student, whom we will call Anna, surprised me when we first started our work together. Anna was a very quiet student. Most days, she only requested my reassurance that she was doing well on her classwork. I would say, “You’re on the right track!” or, “That’s a great start… keep going.” When I encouraged Anna, I made sure to not only give her positive reinforcement, but also have her strive to exceed the bare minimum, an all-too-common expectation for students.

The first time we ventured out of the classroom on our own and truly dove into her academic and social-emotional strengths, I was also able to investigate her struggles. Students on our focus list are typically performing below grade level. Often they have the skills but lack motivation and confidence. Other times, they lack the skills, have given up, and fail to believe in themselves. I believe that Anna is a bright girl with potential. She and I formed an early bond, and I knew then that we would spend this year dedicated to harvesting the potential inside of her to produce academic results.

Jessica Rieger helps a student out with an assignment during English class.
Jessica Rieger helps a student out with an assignment during English class. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Our first one-on-one was where the magic began, where the quiet, shy girl suddenly burst out of her shell, full of giggles and jokes. Anna became a girl that I did not even recognize from all the weeks prior during class. Her love of learning and playful nature shone through. On that first day of working side-by-side, my undivided attention on her, I saw her passion ignite.

“Miss, can I use a dictionary to find words for the worksheet?” she asked me with the biggest grin on her face.”I know we don’t have to but, I love the dictionary.”

I was floored. To have a student use the word “love” in reference to the word “dictionary” was a wonderful surprise, especially when most students don’t know a world without a computer or smartphone. Even at the age of 24, I make myself feel old when I say, “Back when I was a kid we didn’t have fancy stuff like that!”

Not all days can be like Anna’s first day. Student will have tough days where they don’t really feel like working on – well – anything. And it’s on those days that there is less sunshine and more thunder. There are days when my students resist my assistance. There are days when my students would rather yell at me or call me a jerk in an attempt to push me away. But even when their words are hurtful, I  never give up on them.

Jessica Rieger works with students during an English class.
Jessica Rieger works with students during an English class. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Jessica (not her real name), is my toughest coursework student. She will do everything she can to push me away. When I correct negative in-class behavior, she is quick to respond, “You just don’t like me, miss,” or, “I don’t want to work with you anymore.”

I have lost count of how many times Jessica has said she does not want to work with me or that she’s simply going to “quit City Year.” And though I have been making an effort to give her a greater sense of space and freedom, I have no intention of letting her quit so easily. You see, for her and I to work will take time. We will grow together in this relationship. As of this moment, I may not know where our relationship is headed, but I do know we will never give up on her achievements in school.

And hey, she has shown me that she has conviction, assertiveness, and an ability to share her feelings – that’s a strength. Together, we will build her up so that she can also embrace the vulnerability she has shown me. Until that day comes, I will do my best for Jessica, for Anna, and for all of my students. Each student has a story, and City Year corps members seek to understand it.

When it came to school work when I was Anna and Jessica’s age, I was always pretty self-reliant and wanted my work to show how much I cared about my education and my future. My greatest struggle during this period of my life was not the work, but the social responsibility that came with being a middle schooler.

Samantha "Sammy" Altamirano welcome the students with the daily Power Greeting.
Samantha “Sammy” Altamirano welcome the students with the daily Power Greeting. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

I won’t say middle school was my favorite time. That would be a lie. Middle school was hard, emotional, and at times truly overwhelming. It was tough being in the middle of being a kid and an adult. The world now expected me to be more independent, and the teachers didn’t baby me anymore. To be able to go back now and see students like Anna and Jessica that are going through the same struggles reminds me how important a caring adult can be in a young person’s life.

It’s hard to say for sure what the end of this year will bring. I’ve learned to never make plans that far in advance, but I will tell you what I hope will happen: I will have completed my service. If I’m lucky, I will be able to say with confidence that I made a significant impact in the lives of the students I worked with this year. I will continue to live in Texas with my darling cat, work for a nonprofit that hopefully serves youth or people with disabilities, and help make the world a better place in whatever small ways I can.

As for Jessica and Anna, my hope is that these girls – and all my students at Rhodes – will be able to move on to the 7th grade with more confidence than before. I hope they realize that even though there were days when I was tough on them, it was to make things easier for them once they are on their own.

I want them to understand how important their education is and trust that, when they take school seriously, they can do and be anything.

Raquella Freeman

Raquella Freeman is a 6th grade City Year AmeriCorps Member at Jeremiah Rhodes Middle School.