Cooley helps young volunteers prepare for 'Life after City Year'


By Debra Talcott

Legal News

Faculty and staff from the Auburn Hills campus of Cooley Law School played host on Friday, April 1, to 63 members of the City Year Detroit program. In a session titled, "Life After City Year," the young adult volunteers learned a variety of ways in which a law degree could be a means to continue serving their communities in the future.

Presenters included Associate Dean Lauren Rousseau, who teaches Civil Procedure; Professsor Stevie Swanson, who teaches Property I and II; Dionnie Wynter, assistant director of the Center for Ethics, Service, and Professionalism; Val Schnable, coordinator of Enrollment and Student Services; and Alana Glass and Shari Lesnick, coordinators of Career and Professional Development. The program included four hours of information and sharing with lunch provided by Cooley.

The City Year Detroit volunteers are no strangers to community service. As full-time AmeriCorps volunteers, they work approximately 50 hours a week from August to June. These college and high school graduates mentor and tutor 2,000 middle and high school students through the Young Heroes and City Heroes programs. They also participate in large-scale physical service projects in which they partner with neighborhood and educational volunteers as well as corporate and elected officials.

City Year Detroit's service partners include 75 nonprofit organizations, including WDET 101.9, Habitat for Humanity, and the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. Corporate sponsorship comes from Ford Motor Company, Chase, the United Way, and many others that play key roles in Southeast Michigan.

City Year Detroit cites the statistic that every 26 seconds an American student gives up on school. Their focus is to keep students "in school and on track." Responding to research that suggests that students at risk for dropping out before graduation can be identified as early as the 6th grade, City Year volunteers guide and support students in the ABCs of performance: Attendance, Behavior, and Course work in math and English. As near-peer role models, the volunteers work diligently to build a more positive school climate and to inspire students to take responsibility for their education.

One young adult volunteer who is trying to make a difference in the lives of students in Metro Detroit is 19-year-old Brandon Graves, who plans to attend Central Michigan University next fall. A 2010 graduate of Old Redford Academy, Graves will work to earn a degree in communications then go on to become a social worker. He credits his mother for giving him the initial inspiration to apply for one of the 71 spots in City Year's highly competitive program.

"My mother works in the same building where City Year Detroit's headquarters are located. After she told me about what City Year does, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for me to have that kind of impact on my community," says Graves.

Graves is assigned to Warren E. Bow Middle School on Prevost Street in Detroit. He started his work with a sixth grade classroom and now works four days a week with seventh-graders there.

"I work with about 40 seventh-graders now, but I feel like I've gotten to work with and know more than 100 students this year," says Graves, who explains that some students have left and others have come into the school during the year.

Graves says that what separates his own school experience from that of the students he tutors and mentors is that he did not have someone other than his teachers and family members to help with anything from academic issues to personal issues.

"Having someone to just talk to makes a difference to these kids because some of them have no one at all," explains Graves.

In addition to being there for the students during the school day, Graves runs an after-school program three days a week. The students have learned about topics from proper business attire and etiquette to problem-solving activities such as building bridges with popsicle sticks.

"Some students have told me that if I hadn't been there, they might not have passed 7th grade," says Graves. "I guess it's safe to say I helped them realize how important education is."

Graves says that, although his commitment to the program has been tiring and stressful at times, he has gained as much as he has given.

"My experience has helped me become more patient in building relationships with people," shares Graves. "Seeing that some of these students literally have nothing, and seeing that once you get past their rough exteriors there's a child that is yearning for attention, has left an impact on me."

Another City Year volunteer is Michigan State University graduate Skye Black, who earned her undergraduate degree in sociology. Now 24, Black first learned about City Year at a career fair sponsored by MSU.

"After working for a year after graduation, I realized that my job was not fulfilling enough, and I wanted to make an immediate difference in the lives of our youth. City Year provided me the opportunity to do so."

Black, who attended Ann Arbor Public Schools while growing up, notices some profound differences between the educational opportunities she took for granted as a student and the atmosphere of the situation in which she volunteers.

"One glaringly obvious difference is the lack of resources. Many classes do not have a sufficient number of textbooks, the copy machines are broken, and there is hardly any toilet paper, soap, and other supplies. As a student, I never had to think about many of the basic necessities that are missing in my students' education," says Black.

Black is assigned to work with 70 students from two classes of sixth grade English/language arts. She tutors 15-20 students on a regular basis and interacts with all of the students on a daily basis.

"The 15-20 I tutor are on a focus list, which identifies students that are behind academically and need assistance to keep them in school and on track."

Black takes pride in the strides her students have made this year and feels that their improvement in and enjoyment of reading are the most noteworthy.

"We read all the time! I let the students select books they are interested in, and we take turns reading each book page by page. I spend almost all my lunch breaks squeezing in more time for reading," Black explains.

Black says her students are particularly fond of the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series and that she has recently started training her sixth-graders to read to kindergartners, with surprising results.

"I was dumbfounded as I watched several of my students--who have typically struggled with reading--light up when they entered the kindergarten room. For once, they were confident in their reading ability, and I am still seeing the lasting effects of this experience."

Black has witnessed improvement through both objective and subjective measurement of her students' progress.

"There are two ways to monitor my work. The first is through areas they don't necessarily get graded on, such as confidence, improvement in attitude, and increased interest in reading and writing. My students never cease to amaze me; just last week one student asked me to read with him, who, at the beginning of the year, wouldn't have been caught dead spending his lunch hour reading."

The second way Black has tracked student progress is through graded work.

"Sometimes it is small baby steps of improvement," she admits. "It may be the consistent F on spelling that has risen to a D. It is important to celebrate even these smallest steps toward improvement."

Black attributes much of her success with the students to the guidance she has received from dynamic veteran teacher Sherry Andrews.

"Talk about an inspirational woman! I will never forget the valuable lessons she has helped me learn."

Saying she has gained a great deal from her City Year experience, Black now hopes to be accepted for a return stint with the organization next fall, when she would face new challenges as a team leader.

Black is one of those people who see every new experience as an opportunity to learn, calling Cooley's "Life After City Year" program "wonderful."

"The amount of time and consideration the staff at Cooley took was very clear throughout the entire day. I learned a lot about alternative career paths you can have with a law degree, and that was extremely helpful to someone like me, who is considering getting an MSW and, potentially, a law degree. My dream job would be to start an organization similar to the Harlem Children's Zone right here in Detroit."

Published: Tue, Apr 12, 2011