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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, April 18, 2014

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In Kids & Family

The City Year team at Roosevelt, including Claire Van Fossen (front row, second from right) and Brittany Nash (far right, front). (Jake Drollinger photo.)

In Kids & Family

City Year does varied work at six MPS locations, but the focus is on reading and math. (Andy Dean photo.)

City Year's youthful talent serves students, teachers well


Things move quickly in Mr. Miller's sixth grade math class at Roosevelt Middle School of the Arts. Perhaps the hanging motorcycle shrine right inside the door of his first-floor classroom is a harbinger to all who enter ... this class is built for speed.

Reviewing homework, Miller sounds almost like an auctioneer. Perhaps he knows that if he lets up, 30 or so young minds may begin to wander. Instead, these kids are with him all the way.

Their hands shoot up and they answer his rapid-fire questions, using the proper math vocabulary. They have the answers and they know exactly how they arrived at them.

He walks the room, glancing at the open notebooks, offering praise and nudging a few kids back on track. Reaching the back corner, where a bulletin board is posted with a collection of tickets to Bucks, Brewers, Packers games; to a Kid Rock concert, Miller -- who is youthful and bearded -- almost slyly slips a few Phantomgrams to kids who are working especially hard. Students can trade them in for items at the school shop later.

Miller is no-nonsense, on task and encouraging. He gives extra credit to kids whose parents sign their homework and he congratulates the 90 percent of the class that is not only doing its homework, but, he adds, is doing it well. In sixth grade, these kids are working on prime factorization. They're doing mental math games and they're doing algebra.

Even though the students are thinking about the book fair down in the library on this fall day, they are focused and they really seem to know their math. One boy picks up a black, hard-shell trombone case off the floor next to his chair and lays it across his lap. But, don't be fooled. He's not bored or distracted. He leans his arms over it and quickly works out a problem, raises his hand and gives the right answer.

If I'd have had Mr. Miller for math when I was 12, I'd probably be a math whiz. When you hear people talk about bad teachers, they are clearly not talking about David Miller.

But even teachers like him could use some help.

Enter City Year

On this day, that help comes from Brittany Nash, a young team member who works 40-45 hours at Roosevelt as a member of the City Year corps, which has 10 people in the school assisting in reading and math classes.

There are 60 City Year corps members working 10 months in six Milwaukee Public Schools in this, CY's debut year in the district.

As Miller puts the kids through the paces and keeps them engaged, Nash puts the lessons up on the projector and updates the numbers as the class discusses the problems. She also walks the room, offering assistance and helping to keep fidgety kids focused.

City Year staffers also pull out kids to do one on one tutoring, they work with small groups within the room and they're expected to model good behavior for students.

"The City Year team at Roosevelt has provided both positive energy and contributed to the academic focus," says Roosevelt Prinicipal Sally Schumacher.

"Not only are they supporting teaching and learning in our school community, they are embracing the RTI (Response to Instruction is a method used to help kids who are struggling) model, providing support to students' academic achievement through focused instruction based on students' learning needs."

In addition to its classroom work at Roosevelt, City Year is launching an after-school program that will be run by Nash. Each team member has a specific role and Nash's is as after-school coordinator.

"City Year Team has also has played a significant role in supporting PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports; ), through planning school-wide incentive events," adds Schumacher.

"They have planned and implemented several ... including sport events and a school-wide dance. During the November events include a spelling bee and a movie event."

But the basics are the main focus.

"Math and literacy are where we see we can make the most difference," says Program manager Christopher Steinkamp, a Colorado native who got his start with City Year in Manchester, N.H., and leads the City Year team at Roosevelt.

"We are not trained tutors. We're given training, but we're not certified tutors or anything like that. We've noticed over the years that math and literacy are the two subjects where untrained, un-specialized tutors can have the most impact, because it's just reinforcing simple fundamentals."

City Year volunteers (who receive a small monthly stipend to help pay the costs of room and board) are between 17 and 24 years old -- fairly close in age to the students, especially in high schools -- and that helps them create a rapport with kids that older teachers can't.

"We definitely don't want to get too far away from having folks right out of high school," says Steinkamp. "One of the fundamental parts of our program is being close in age to the students. If they (the students) are working with a tutor 5 to 7 years older than them, they might have a really good connection with that tutor. Some of their teachers are significantly older, so ... it's good to have that range."

MPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton agrees.

"There is a powerful impact made on children when a caring adult steps into their world and shows an interest," he says. "City Year volunteers tend to be young and energetic, and since they can walk the walk, so the speak, our students open up to them. They may be seen more as peers or older brothers and sisters."

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