By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Nov 09, 2010 at 9:11 AM

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."

Born in Boston

City Year was founded nearly a quarter-century ago in Boston and is affiliated with Americorps, says Steinkamp. The program is currently active in 20 American cities and Milwaukee was added to the mix this year. It's starting out at six Milwaukee Public Schools: Rogers Academy, Eighty-First Street, Alexander Mitchell Integrated Arts Elementary, Roosevelt Creative Arts Middle School, South Division High and Northwest Secondary.

Like Steinkamp, a number of City Year volunteers have no Milwaukee roots. About a third of them come from other states. Two of the 10 working at Roosevelt are graduates of that school.

"We've been looking at Milwaukee for a good five years or so now," Steinkamp says. "Last year we had a start-up team who started to talk to folks in the district. Greg Thornton, some big funders, the Uihlein Foundation -- they realized from the district side that they wanted us here. From the school side, there were about 26 who applied for us, and only six schools received teams. We are funded from the district, so the definitely want us here. We're funded privately from big donors in the city, so they want us here.

"Teachers are very happy to have us here. I wish we had more City Year people and that we could be in every class. In due time."

Eighty-First Street School principal Margaret Olson says that at her school, City Year team members also go over various data with kids. That and City Year's regular, high-profile presence makes a statement to students.

"They are recognizable in their red shirts and they appear on a regular schedule," she says. "They do data meetings with students and teachers, and by doing those sessions, help students understand that they own their own data. They are responsible for their (own) attendance and achievement."

The value of one-on-one time

While some Roosevelt classes begin to check out the book fair down in the library, City Year's Claire Van Fossen is upstairs in Patricia Horigan's eighth grade English class. Midway through, she pulls out a student to work one-on-one in an adjacent room.

Van Fossen and the girl -- who is blind -- sit leaning over a braille book, in a room flooded with sunlight. As the girl reads, Van Fossen listens attentively and occasionally punctuates the reading with questions that help the girl boost her comprehension.

They go over homework together and discuss finer points like the usage of semicolons. Van Fossen is easygoing and the student is clearly comfortable working with her.

Van Fossen and her City Year cohorts' presence at Roosevelt offers precious assistance to students that need a little extra push. And that can help teachers, too.

"There are a lot of classes here that have a big number of students," says Steinkamp, "some classes up to 40 students, so it can be a big help to teachers. If a corps member pulls out three or four students to go and do small group work time, it not only frees up space in the class, but it frees up the mental capacities of the teacher to help those kids."

Although she's not sure the students realize the importance of them, pull-outs and small group time are where Van Fossen feels she makes the biggest impact.

"I certainly do not think students would get the individualized attention many of them require in order to understand and complete all of their coursework," she says, a few days later.

"For many students, having a young adult to encourage them in their academics and fill the gaps left by the high student-to-teacher ratio is invaluable. (But) students do not talk much about the importance of the one-on-one time. I'm not sure they are capable of perceiving how unique and beneficial individualized attention is for them at this stage."

Infusing fun into challenging work

Other than during a daily 90-minute prep period, City Year team members work with kids all day long. And they're learning as they go. Few have studied education. But they are dedicated, Steinkamp says.

All 10 team members greet students entering the building in the morning and between classes, when the hallways are popping and crackling with adolescent energy, the team members guide them along to their classes. It's hard to imagine how school staff would get along without these extra hands on deck.

"This is very challenging work," Steinkamp admits. "We try to infuse fun in there, but this is a daily challenge."

Keeping a positive spirit is clearly an approach adopted by the entire team. The City Year team members -- easily identified by their CY logo polos -- appear unfailingly smiley and cheerful.

Getting through to the kids takes more than a smile, says Van Fossen, who -- volunteer or not -- takes her job very seriously.

"Students' behavioral issues are the greatest obstacle to effective service," she says. "Also, it is very difficult to establish a clear, consistent identity with students as a "near peer" -- we're not quite the teacher, but not quite a peer. Students are prone to see corps members either as a friend whose directions can be ignored and who will let misbehavior slide, or as another authority to defy and despise.

"Corps members must master the art of being both mentor and tutor but neither friend nor foe. So many factors have made the experience very different from what I expected, but every day I work to be effective in whatever capacity I can best serve my students."

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.