City Year: Leveling the Playing Field

by Faizah Wulandana

Of the 400 students at Moten Elementary school, 99% of the students are black. I saved 1% for a few outliers: Anna1, a fifth grader of Chinese descent, and a caucasian student in preschool. In the United States today, school segregation is still a reality, rooted in unfair government policies and creating disadvantages for students that come from poorer backgrounds. So what is City Year, and what can City Year do to alleviate the dire reality of school segregation?

In 1954, a groundbreaking Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, ruled that school segregation is unconstitutional, which offered hope for school integration. However, about 60 years later, the outlook of integrated schools doesn’t look so hopeful. Black students living in the South today are less likely to attend school with a majority-white student body than 50 years ago2. It’s a result of government policies that are attempting to keep neighborhoods white-only. Beyond this being a race issue, economics are at play as well. Black communities are being pushed into poverty-stricken neighborhoods, with black children more likely to grow up in poor neighborhoods than they were 50 years ago3. This uneven playing field that children are placed on affects everything – from their quality of education to their life span. And if it isn’t already obvious, the playing field is not in favor of black and Latin children.

So what is City Year? And what can a non-profit organization do for an issue that has its roots informed by decade-old racial prejudices and embedded in government policies? City Year is a force of young individuals, dedicated to providing children with the opportunities that their living circumstances cannot offer to them. As near-peer mentors, we lift our students up in an attempt to give them a more even playing field. Together, we serve communities by coming to them, joining their schools and becoming a part of their classrooms. We seek to address the needs of students that schools are not designed to meet, such as behavior and socio-emotional skills. We analyze student scores to determine what we need to re-teach students to get them on grade-level. We work with the school to create after-school enrichment programs, so that we offer the most that we can to our students. As City Years, we are the first in school and the last to leave, dedicating 10+ hours a day to children that society sometimes forgets.

But despite the hope that City Year’s mission provides and the energy that City Year fellows bring to the table, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed as a City Year. It sometimes seems like nothing ever changes. With a nonexistent disciplinary system, Andy and Alan4 still come to school even after getting caught smoking weed in the bathroom. Teachers struggle to do their jobs with very little support. Students with good behavior are overshadowed by the few who are disruptive in class and prevent teachers from teaching.

However, just as the good students are harder to notice, so are our efforts. It’s easy to overlook the good that is being done since some problems still persist. Doing City Year requires an enormous amount of hope and love. I firmly believe that slowly but surely, my 12 focus list students are going to catch up to grade level as long as I patiently encourage and teach them past the meltdowns they will have when faced with a challenge or their inability to focus due to their high energy. I believe in my students who I work on behavior skills with. After weeks of setting goals to improve social, emotional, and academic skills, they will go from shy, unconfident children to students with a renewed awareness of their strengths and positive thoughts for the world. Ultimately, we “do it for the kids” and their futures, and the smiles and energy that they emanate in exchange makes everything – long hours, little pay, numerous deadlines, and unseen results – all the more worth it.


1 Name changed for privacy

3 Ibid.
4 Names changed for privacy