Volunteers with Americorps program embed in Memphis classrooms to improve student outcomes

City Year Memphis is on a mission to improve reading and math comprehension in grades third through ninth grade in the hopes of increasing graduation rates in Memphis public schools.

The national nonprofit, a program of Americorps, has announced Memphis as its 28th site after a successful pilot program during the 2016 to 2017 school year when 16 City Year volunteers embedded in two public high schools. This year, the program will ramp up to reach six Memphis schools and 35 volunteers. 

City Year sites are located in 28 different cities across the U.S., as well as two abroad sites — City Year UK and City Year Africa. City Year is dedicated to increasing high school graduation rates, provide mentors and tutors to struggling students and give teachers and provide school staff the extra help they need to keep students on track. The program specifically focuses on third through ninth grade and brings in volunteers from AmeriCorps, a voluntary civil society program that engages adults in public service.

In 2017, only 79.6 percent of students graduated from Shelby County Schools. Shelby County Schools’ newest standardized test, the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) showed that only 16 percent of students scored proficient or advanced on fourth-grade reading and 20 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in fourth-grade math. It is numbers such as these that City Year Memphis wants to change by placing volunteers within Memphis public elementary and middle schools that feed into public high schools with low student graduation rates.

Within their assigned schools, City Year corps members will target three areas of student achievement, what the organization calls its “ABCs” of attendance, behavior and coursework, particularly in math and reading. City Year Memphis is currently serving in Brownsville Road Elementary School, Westside Achievement Middle School, Memphis Scholars Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary, Power Center Academy Middle and High School and KIPP Collegiate Middle and High School.

“We know that if we get these students, especially those in third through ninth grade, at grade level in reading and math, they will reach tenth grade on track and are more likely to graduate on time,” said Dr. Catherine Cushinberry, City Year Memphis executive director.
Dr. Catherine Cushinberry, City Year Memphis executive director. (Elliot Haney)
She explains that Corps volunteers fulfill the ABCs by providing one-on-one student tutoring and mentoring sessions for students lagging in math and reading comprehension as well as overall classroom help for both students and teachers. The program facilitates full-school support by creating school-wide incentives and events.

Corps volunteers decide which students need the most one-on-one academic help and mentoring based on students’ reading and math scores as well as classroom behavior and school attendance records. Cushinberry says City Year Memphis wants to close some of the gaps public schools experience in funding, resources and staffing, especially when it comes to students who need individualized help or perhaps an extra nudge of encouragement to show up to school on time.

“Schools, principals, teachers and staff can’t do it all," she said. 

"Having those extra set of hands in the school and classroom who are focused on not only providing the students with academic help but also social and behavioral support is so important to student success."

A Memphis native herself, Cushinberry earned her Ph.D. in Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Missouri-Colombia in Missouri. She served as the director of research for the national office of Girls Inc. and as the executive director of a Boys and Girls Club in Tennessee. She relocated to Indianapolis where she served three years as the national executive director of Parents of Public Schools, before returning to Memphis 11 months ago to head City Year’s newest site in her hometown.

Currently there are 36 City Year Memphis corps volunteers. Volunteers are usually between the ages of 18 and 24 and receive a modest living stipend as well as educational credits for their work. Cushinberry reports that 60 percent of volunteers are from outside the state and 40 percent are Memphians. Jonathan Higginbottom is part of the latter group.

Higginbottom or Mr. H, as the students call him, has been volunteering at Westside Achievement Middle School since July 2017. He will say goodbye at the end of May 2018 as his year of service comes to an end.

After graduating from University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff with an undergraduate degree in Broadcast Journalism, a friend sent Higginbottom information about City Year Memphis. He decided volunteering for the program would be unique way to fill a gap year as well as an excellent opportunity to give back to the community. Fatefully, Higginbottom was assigned to Westside, a school he attended for a year in the neighborhood where he was raised.

“It’s been a full circle experience. I would have never pictured myself working in Memphis as an adult. I always wanted to leave the city. I never pictured myself as a teacher.” said Higginbottom, whose main focus is helping students with math. 
Jonathan Higginbottom, a volunteer with City Year Memphis and a native Memphian. (Esther Ro)

Since City Year Memphis is still in its infancy and primarily focused on third through ninth grade students, there are no firm numbers yet on graduation rates or student success.

Cushinberry says those numbers will be something the program will track as the students leave middle school and matriculate into high school. City Year Memphis is finding inspiration in small wins, she said. One win that is close to her heart is the story of a fourth grader starting the year at a kindergarten reading level and finishing the year by improving two grade levels in reading comprehension.

In the near future, the nonprofit is setting its sights on the Klondike-Smokey City community (where Cushinberry grew up) and the Frayser community as areas to add the City Year Memphis support network. Cushinberry says that the program is also committed to ensuring the success of its corps volunteers by establishing teacher pipeline partnerships with teaching residency programs that will filter into teaching and education fields.

The larger goal of City Year Memphis is planting sustainable roots in the community to encourage strategic growth in students while engaging deeply with communities to understand its unique needs and barriers to success. 

“Success for students is so much more than getting them to read at grade level. It’s about creating an opportunity for students to ultimately live up to their potential so they can be economically stable and support themselves,” she said. In the next five years, Dr. Cushinberry wants the red jackets the corps volunteers routinely wear to be synonymous with excellent educational support.

On June 1 2018, the 36 corps volunteers will graduate at the National Civil Rights Museum from their service with City Year Memphis. Higginbottom was recently accepted into Urban Teachers Dallas and will be pursuing his Masters of Science in Education through a partnership Urban Teachers has with John Hopkins University. He plans on teaching middle school math.

“My time at City Year Memphis has been one of the most impactful years of my life. A lot of these students coming from low-economic communities feel like they have their back to the wall," he said. "I want to be a positive example of what it looks like to make it out, graduate and come back and serve your community.”

Read more articles by Rachel Warren.

Rachel Warren is a freelance writer whose writing has appeared in RSVP Magazine and Focus Magazine in Memphis. She is a sales associate at the Peddler Bike Shop. Rachel likes riding bikes, playing roller derby, watching scary movies and writing about Memphis. 
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