The Washington Post

Arne Duncan visits D.C. school to cheer City Year volunteers

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Kaya Henderson join in a City Year cheer at D.C. Scholars Stanton Elementary.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan paid a visit Monday to Southeast Washington’s D.C. Scholars Stanton Elementary to recognize the role that young City Year volunteers have played in helping spur the school’s transformation in recent years.

“Turning around a school is some of the hardest, most controversial and most important work in the country,” Duncan said before a group including City Year leaders, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. “You guys together are doing something remarkable.”

Located in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and long known for chaotic classrooms, Stanton has become a success story in the three years since Henderson asked Scholar Academies, a Philadelphia-based charter school operator, to take over the school and turn it around.

Parents and teachers say that the school is now safe and calm, and the change is beginning to show up in student achievement: Since 2011, reading proficiency rates have doubled, from 10 to 20 percent, and math proficiency has quadrupled, from 10 to 42 percent.

Stanton teacher Sheryl Garner has experienced the transformation firsthand. “Before, I was stabbed with pencils, kicked and punched on a daily basis,” she said. “But I’m glad I decided to stick with it, because I’ve seen so much growth.”

Garner attributed the change to three things: school leaders’ attention to hiring staff members who dedicate themselves completely to their jobs; the advent of routine home visits by teachers, a relationship-building effort that drew praise from Duncan last year; and volunteers from City Year, a nonprofit organization that trains young people ages 17 to 24 to work with students who are having trouble with attendance, behavior or academics and who are most at risk of dropping out.

That one-on-one and small-group attention makes a big difference, Garner said, especially when class sizes are larger than one teacher can manage alone. “Having that extra body just really, really helps,” she said.

City Year volunteers have worked at Stanton for the past six years, but this year, the organization was able to increase the number of members by at least 50 percent, to 18, with a grant from the U.S. Education Department and the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps.

Across Washington, City Year has 156 corps members working in 13 D.C. public schools. Most volunteer for one year, but some stay on longer. Eight former City Year corps members have gone on to work in staff positions at Stanton.

“We’re included in everything,” said Adam Hiatt, a second-year corps member at Stanton. “It’s very easy to want to come back to a place where you feel like you’re making a difference.”

Stanton has received many extra resources to bolster its turnaround effort, including a $1.3 million federal School Improvement Grant that runs out this year. Henderson said her team is studying what has worked at Stanton and which of its additional resources should be given to other low-performing schools.

“We simply need to bottle this and figure out how to proliferate it all around the city,” Gray said.

Emma Brown writes about national education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.

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