Connecting with students during a critical growth year

January 6, 2020

Do you remember your first day of high school? As many of us know, it can be intimidating (i.e. walking into a new environment, attempting new challenging curriculum, introducing yourself to entirely new groups of classmates and teachers).

Ninth grade is a critical year for students, and the relationships students develop are important to their success in the years leading to their graduation.  According to Elaine Allensworth, the Director of University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, “The first year in high school has an outsize impact on whether students eventually graduate because it is a critical time for students’ perceptions of themselves as learners.”  Students can easily fall behind, get embarrassed and withdraw.  In Chicago, unexcused absences quadruple when students transition from eighth to ninth grade.

Because of this, Saga recruits and trains highly talented individuals who are looking to get hands-on experience serving as educators, and developing mentoring relationships with high school students at this critical academic juncture.

To gain more insight into this experience, we spoke with one of our current service members, Sydney, and her student, Mariah, a 9th grade student at Morgan Park High School in Chicago.

Tell me about your background and what initially attracted you to Saga?

Sydney: I’m from Chicago and went to Gwendolyn Brooks High School. For undergrad, I attended Washington University in St. Louis, and majored in Economics and Design. I’ve always been passionate about working with young people and being a mentor, and joining Saga Education was a great opportunity to serve my community. I grew up in this neighborhood, and I can empathize with the students and what they’re going through. Although I am in the position of instruction, I actually learn so much from the students, like Mariah, every day.  So far, I have learned that students work well with those who show compassion, listen, and respect their individuality.

 What strengths make Mariah a star?

Sydney: As a freshman, it’s easy to get discouraged or shut down when faced with challenges or new experiences, but Mariah is an extremely hard worker and does not give up. She knows that all I want is for my students to ask questions and try their best, and she does that every single day. Also, I love that she is always willing to help her podmates, and sometimes she is able to explain concepts to them better than I!

 In what ways does having a tutorial class help you now that you’re in high school?

Mariah: We didn’t have many resources and I was struggling so hard at my grammar school last year. The environment was completely different. I almost got expelled. I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t understand the math, and I just copied other people. Now, I have a personal tutor and mentor, and I feel like I have changed so much. Sydney called my dad the other day and told him about my progress and how good I was doing. My dad called me right away and told me how proud he was of me. I could tell he was smiling so much. That made me feel good.

How would you describe having a Saga Fellow?

Mariah: She is very supportive even on days when I don’t feel like doing anything. She will take some minutes out of the day to talk to me about what’s on my mind, and she actually cares. She gives me extra support and walks me through things I don’t understand. There are things that we work on in my Algebra class that we’ve already done in tutorial. So when I get to class, I just fly through it. I’m very confident in myself now. Math is one of my favorite subjects because I push myself more than I did last year. I also like helping other students understand problems and break things down in ways they understand.

What are you both looking forward to this year?

Mariah: I’m looking forward to getting into Math 2, which is harder than Algebra 1. I know that having all of this math support and resources will help me get into this class. One day, I will become an orthodontist so I know I will need math to help me get there too.

Sydney: I’m looking forward to seeing my students develop their overall confidence as well as their academic skills. Also, I look forward to how this work will impact me as I pursue graduate school next year in Urban Policy and Planning at UIC.

These types of relationships and student success stories drive our program. As an AmeriCorps Member with Saga Education you’ll be able to help students achieve their goals and capture even more success stories like these. Make an impact by supporting our program or applying to serve now!