This post is by Dani Nispel, an AmeriCorps VISTA member at Community Schools Collaboration, a nonprofit organization that provides after-school tutoring and more in Seattle-area schools. Nispel is serving through Corps18, a Points of Light program that supports VISTA members addressing chronic absenteeism across the country.
I work directly in two elementary schools, places I haven’t spent a significant amount of time in since I was actually in elementary school myself. I’ve been helping to coordinate the after-school programs. But mostly, I’ve found I’ve been doing a lot of listening.
I’m listening to the counselors and what they think their kids and parents need. I’m listening to the family liaisons and what struggles they face. I’m listening to the PTA moms who want to support their schools as best they can. I’m listening to the kids who know that their parents work too many hours as it is.
I’ve worked with after-school programs before back on the East Coast, but those were with middle school students. I think elementary age kids are different, at least for me. I think it’s hard because for kids this age, a lot of things are out of their control.
They don’t always get to choose if they’ll be walking home from the after-school program, even if it’s dark out by early November. They don’t always get to control if they’ll get to school on time or get picked up on time. There are also some pieces that fall under the “ignorance is bliss” category.
At this age, the kids don’t always recognize that they’re getting their dinner here at school because there won’t be food at home; it’s just fun to have pizza and yogurt after school. They don’t always understand that it’s a disadvantage to go home and have parents who can’t help with homework because they don’t speak English; it’s just a pain that they have to do their homework with us.
I get frustrated a lot, either because I feel like I don’t have enough to do during the days or because I feel like there are way too many avenues to start a project. But in the end, when the kids come in at 3:10 every day and tell me about their days, those frustrations don’t really matter anymore.
It’s worth it when a third grader comes in the next day excited because they remember how we did their long division homework together. Or when the parents reach out to me because they want to put together an MLK Day of Service at our schools.
The day-to-day work isn’t what’s hard. It’s hard because no one tells you what to do. You have to listen and understand and be a part of the community before you can make any kind of difference. But I’m glad I’m here. There are a lot of good ideas floating around. A lot of people who want to make positive changes at our schools. I’m glad I get to be a part of that.