The Education Corner



Check back here for education news and for information about the kinds of education reforms, initiatives and programs that might make a difference for your Corps's educational programming. 


Date: April 9, 2014
Title: College Board/National Journal "Next America" Poll

 

Minority children are projected to comprise a majority of the K-12 population within this decade, and minority workers projected to provide all of the net increase in the workforce through 2030. As a result, many agree that increasing the skills and educational attainment of young, non-white people looms as one of the most pressing challenges to American competitiveness.

In an era of slow economic growth and tight public budgets, there remains considerable disagreement about not only the kind of intervention, but also the timing of intervention most likely to produce success. In other words, with limited dollars to spend, what is the point in the lifecycle of students and young workers where we can invest in them for the greatest return? Click here for the full post


Date: January 9, 2014
Title: Meeting Students Where They Are: Competency-Based Education and College Success

 

The Corps Network's Tyler Wilson recently spoke at a Center for American Progress event on Competency based education. Read below for a description of the event. 

Boosting postsecondary education success is incredibly important for our ability to grow and maintain a strong middle class in an economy that increasingly relies on technology. A new Center for American Progress report will call for game-changing reforms to postsecondary education financing models to promote the adoption of competency-based education—which tracks student progress by measuring the acquisition of knowledge and skills—and stackable credentials—which allow students to leave and re-enter postsecondary education more easily—with the goal of enabling students to more readily complete programs and presenting clear pathways to the workforce.

Please join the Center for American Progress for this event, which will explore competency-based education as a driver of innovation with higher education. Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter will speak about competency-based education as part of President Barack Obama’s plan to make postsecondary education more affordable and a better bargain for the middle class. A panel will discuss emerging approaches to reform that show promise for encouraging program completion, reducing cost, and improving quality. Click here to watch the video. 


Date: April 2, 2013
Title: The GED Test is Undergoing a Major Overhaul. Will the Changes Affect You? 

 

The General Education Development (GED) test has for decades been the most commonly accepted alternative to a high school diploma. Developed in the 1940s as a way to help World War II veterans complete the requirements needed to move on to college, GEDs have now been awarded to over 18 million people. The test has proven to be an excellent tool for adults who may have dropped out of high school many years earlier; the average age of test takers is 26. The market for the GED and other high school equivalency certificates has grown recently along with increased dropout rates (especially among minority populations), and as the changing job market has forced older Americans to improve their education in order to find employment.

After a major overhaul process, a new GED test with different content and a different format will be administered starting in January 2014. This change could create serious obstacles for many low-skilled and low-income adults throughout the country. The new test will be more difficult, more expensive, and will likely be offered in fewer locations. Read more


Date: March 29, 2013
Title: What is the Common Core Initative?

 

This week, members of The Corps Network staff attended an AEI (American Enterprise Institute) research conference on the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The Common Core is an education initiative to align K-12 curricula across the country. The goal is that every student will receive a meaningful high school diploma that guarantees they have a certain level of ability that would be expected in college or desirable to an employer (see below for more information on what the Common Core State Standards entail).

So far, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the initiative. With the new Standards, states will be required to administer new assessments to measure student achievement. Though a test has not been created, the first formal assessment is expected to happen as soon as the 2014 – 2015 school year. This compressed timeline leaves many educators questioning whether the Standards will be effectively implemented and how successful CCSS will be. Read more

The GED Test is undergoing a Major Overhaul. Will the Changes Affect You?

The General Education Development (GED) test has for decades been the most commonly accepted alternative to a high school diploma. Developed in the 1940s as a way to help World War II veterans complete the requirements needed to move on to college, GEDs have now been awarded to over 18 million people. The test has proven to be an excellent tool for adults who may have dropped out of high school many years earlier; the average age of test takers is 26. The market for the GED and other high school equivalency certificates has grown recently along with increased dropout rates (especially among minority populations), and as the changing job market has forced older Americans to improve their education in order to find employment. 

After a major overhaul process, a new GED test with different content and a different format will be administered starting in January 2014. This change could create serious obstacles for many low-skilled and low-income adults throughout the country. The new test will be more difficult, more expensive, and will likely be offered in fewer locations. Read below to learn the specifics of how the GED is changing, why these changes raise concerns for educators, and how states and counties are addressing these concerns. Information taken from The Working Poor Families Project policy brief, "Preparing for the New GED Test: What to Consider Before 2014" (Fall 2012).

 


Why is the GED test changing?

The American Council on Education (ACE), the nonprofit organization that has developed and administered the GED since its creation, believed that the current test content did not reflect the skill level needed for college or competitive jobs. There was a desire to bring the test in alignment with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, and thus keep the test in step with the country’s increased focus on postsecondary education. ACE also wanted to update the test so it could be taken on computers rather than on paper. In 2011, ACE created a partnership with Pearson VUE, a for-profit testing company, in order to develop a new exam that would test for the skills colleges and employers now expect from competitive applicants.

 


What does the current GED test look like?

The current test is comprised of tests in 5 subject areas that, when passed, certify that the test-taker has high school-level academic abilities. Tests are administered at official GED testing centers. Usually, the tests are taken over the course of a few weeks or months (it would take over 7 hours to complete them all at once). The 5 tests include:

  • reading
  • writing
  • math
  • science
  • social studies

 


What will the new GED test look like? – starting January 2014

CONTENT
The new battery of tests places a greater emphasis on writing ability and critical thinking skills. There will be four tests covering the following subject areas:

  • literacy
  • math
  • science
  • social studies
    **(writing skills will be assessed in multiple tests, eliminating the need for a separate writing test) 

TEST TAKING
The new test will be administered on computers. The old paper and pencil tests will only be available for students with disabilities.

SCORING
There will now be a two-tiered scoring system resulting in two different types of certification. There will still be a certain passing score for each test that indicates general high school competency. But, students that score well on college readiness aspects of the test will also receive credentials that indicate both high school equivalency and college readiness.

 


What concerns do educators have about how the GED test changes could affect low-income, low-skilled adults?

COST:

  • The current computer-based GED test costs about $120 for testing centers to administer; this is moderately or significantly more than the standard fee for the paper and pencil test.
  • While some states set the fees for GED tests or cover the test costs completely, other states allow testing centers to determine the price of the tests based on their operating costs and what kinds of subsidies they receive. As subsidies decrease and testing centers must invest in new equipment to administer the tests, there is concern costs could be passed on to test takers in the form of exam fees.
  • Since the new test will be taken by computer, GED Testing Service will assume total responsibility for test scoring and record keeping (a task usually managed by states). Some fear that having a central repository for all GED test records could make it more difficult and costly for test takers to receive their certificates and transcripts.
  • All new test content means test prep centers and adult education providers will need to invest in new materials and professional development. This could mean increased prices for prep services.
  • Many states have subsidized the cost of the GED test, but there is concern that this could stop due to prohibitions of public agencies subsidizing for-profit companies (such as Pearson VUE, the test taking company now partnered with ACE) without competitive bidding.
  • There is concern that Pearson VUE, as a for-profit company, has the ability to increase the test cost whenever they want.

COMPUTERIZATION

Now that the test will be administered solely on computers, adult education providers will need to provide instruction in computer literacy. This will take more time and resources and could prove very difficult for test takers and education providers with limited or no access to computers.

AVAILABILITY OF TEST CENTERS

The new test will be available at Pearson VUE test centers, which are generally far less numerous than the state-managed test centers that currently provide the exams. Existing state testing centers will be authorized to administer the test if they have the resources (computers) and capacity to do so. Fewer testing centers poses a challenge for test takers in rural areas and for those without transportation.

IMPACT ON CURRICULUM & TEST PREPARATION METHODS

  • Studies show that about half of all GED test takers prepare for the exams on their own instead of participating in adult education programs. With the increased rigor of the exam, more students will probably need to use test preparation services.
  • Will the new two-tiered scoring system affect the rate at which GED takers move on to postsecondary education opportunities? Will those who don’t receive the college readiness credentials feel discouraged and not bother applying to college?
  • Does it make sense to bring the test in alignment with the Common Core State Standards Initiative? Yes, the Common Core was created to ensure high school graduates are more prepared for college and careers, but the Standards were developed for K-12 education, not adult education.
  • With the current test disappearing after December 31, 2013, will adult educators and test preparation services have had enough time to bring their curriculum up to speed?

 


 What is being done to address these concerns and accommodate for the new test?

Two main things that need to be done:

  1. States and school districts need to take action to ensure that the new test remains affordable and accessible
  2. States need to take action to make sure there are viable alternatives to the GED, especially for working adults for whom the new test model may not be appropriate.  

What's being done now?

  • GED Testing Services plans to make curriculum and professional development resources available in order to ease the transition.
  • Many states and counties are simply encouraging students to accelerate their studies and complete the GED test before the transition happens in 2014.
  • Some states, such as Texas and New York, are seriously considering creating an alternative test to the GED. Some states already offer alternatives to the GED test and are looking for ways to make these tests more accessible and accepted. Some states are exploring the development of new competency-based high school equivalency diplomas.
  • Some states and counties are looking into other established, national high school equivalency diploma options, such as the National External Diploma Program (NEDP). The NEDP, which is competency-based, better serves adults as it allows test takers to demonstrate skills learned through life experiences rather than through the classroom.

 

What is the Common Core Initiative?


 

This week, members of The Corps Network staff attended an AEI (American Enterprise Institute) research conference on the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The Common Core is an education initiative to align K-12 curricula across the country. The goal is that every student will receive a meaningful high school diploma that guarantees they have a certain level of ability that would be expected in college or desirable to an employer (see below for more information on what the Common Core State Standards entail).

So far, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the initiative. With the new Standards, states will be required to administer new assessments to measure student achievement. Though a test has not been created, the first formal assessment is expected to happen as soon as the 2014 – 2015 school year. This compressed timeline leaves many educators questioning whether the Standards will be effectively implemented and how successful CCSS will be. 

Panelists at the AEI event came to the conclusion that implementing the initiative will face a number of challenges as it interacts with existing school policies and other education reform initiatives. Issues and concerns the panelists discussed included: 

  • How will charter schools react to the Initiative? Charter schools are somewhat based on the idea that standardized schooling is flawed. Will charters reject the Common Core Standards out of fear that it would restrict their freedom to choose their own curriculum and teaching methods? Or, since all states and districts will be more closely aligned under the Common Core, will charter schools embrace the standards as a way to prove their methods are more effective than those used in mainstream schools?
  • The Common Core requires teaching a certain level of computer skills (keyboard use, etc.), and it seems likely that new state assessments will be administered on computers. How will this affect the already large “technology gap” between poor schools and wealthy schools?
  • Though implementation of the Standards is still just beginning, schools will begin formally testing students to see if their achievement levels have changed. How will we know if these assessments are really measuring student achievement in ways similar to how states measured achievement in the past? How soon will schools start looking at test results when making high stakes decisions about teacher hiring and firing?
  • Are teaching schools keeping up with the changes? Are teacher training methods reflective of the Common Core State Standards?
  • How will teachers respond to the Standards? Will they need to change any of their teaching methods? How will they react to working closely with other teachers?
  • CCSS places an emphasis on making sure students are exposed to increasingly difficult texts throughout their educational career. The Standards also require that students learn how to really interact with a text and analyze it, rather than just write about how the text makes them feel. Are students at a level where they are capable of handling this transition? 

What is the Common Core State Standards Initiative?

It is an education initiative that follows the idea that all students across the country should have a common core of knowledge that prepares them for higher education or the workforce. A high school diploma from any school, city, or state should guarantee that the recipient is literate and can compete in the job market. Historically, states have had vastly different standards for what a competent student should be able to do and understand; CCSS seeks to bring these standards into alignment.

There are currently Standards for math and English language arts (Standards for science and social studies do not exist yet). They were released in June 2010 and most states adopted them within a few months. States that adopted the Standards or a similar college and career readiness curriculum were eligible for federal Race to the Top Grants. All states that adopted the initiative plan to have 85 percent of their curricula on the Standards by 2015.

The CCSS initiative is more about prescribing what a student should be able to do rather than saying students should know specific facts or texts. For example, there are no reading lists to accompany the reading standards; rather, students are simply expected to read a wide range of classic and contemporary work that challenges their ideas and perspectives. 

 

Proposed law could reclassify Texas high schools, benefiting American YouthWorks


From KUT - Austin, by Alexandria Mayo

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) reports that less than 85 percent of the students in the class of 2010 graduated. At a hearing Thursday in the Texas Senate, lawmakers heard the case for better tracking students who end up back in school.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, a member of the Senate Public Education Committee, told members that even though high school graduation rates in Texas are improving, some schools aren’t getting credit for their part in those improvements. She was talking about schools that enroll dropouts and give students a high school diploma if they earn their credits and meet the requirements. 

Van de Putte wants the the TEA to account for these students and their schools differently. She’s written a bill that would designate schools where at least half of enrolled students at least 17 as “dropout recovery schools.”
 


Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D - San Antonio, TX

 

She says these schools can get poor ratings because they don’t graduate students at the same age and speed as traditional schools. By creating a separate category for these schools, the TEA could give them points towards their accountability rating for each high school diploma they give.

Charter schools like Premier and American YouthWorks in Austin would benefit if her bill becomes law.

Parc Smith, chief executive of American YouthWorks, says his school has students who get pregnant and leave, and others who are homeless. But many come back. So he wants the state’s measuring stick to take this into account.

“We accelerate the learning rate and we get them to graduate, and so we would like to see some measurement that honors that growth we’re doing with those students rather than penalizing us for them not graduating with their original cohort,” Smith said. “We didn’t create that problem. They come to us two to three years behind.”

Blanca Lopez dropped out in middle school and stayed out for six years. She’s now at Premier in South Austin. She started last September and has finished the equivalent of two years of high school. She has plans to finish.

“The teachers worked with me to get back on track,” Lopez said. “I made the mistake of dropping out once, six years ago, and I’m not making that mistake.”

New Report shows that U.S. is on track to have 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020

How a Former Corpsmember Helps Current Corpsmembers: Mike Bridges' rise from Corpsmember to Supervisor


Where are they now? – Catching up with 2006 Corpsmember of the Year,
Michael Bridges


Mike receiving his award at The Corps Network 2006 National Conference in Washington, DC
 

Michael Bridges, formerly a Corpsmember with Conservation Corps of Long Beach, won Corpsmember of the Year in 2006 for his commitment to service. Read below to find out what he's been up to since accepting his award, or find out more about Mike and his Corps experience by reading his bio from our 2006 National Conference.

Michael Bridges followed in his brother’s footsteps and joined Conservation Corps of Long Beach in 2003. Mike had recently dropped out of high school and thought that becoming a Corpsmember would be a good way to get back on track.  

“I saw how it was changing the lives of some of the Corpsmembers and I realized really quickly that it was a second chance for me to get things going in own my life,” said Mike.

Mike progressed quickly at CCLB, ultimately moving through eight levels of the program. He served as a member of the Corps Council, was awarded seven Outstanding Achievement Awards, and earned more than $5,000 through the AmeriCorps Education Awards Program and the CCLB scholarship fund. Mike was so respected by his peers that they nominated him to speak at the CCLB graduation.

Though he had sometimes struggled in the traditional school system and subsequently dropped out, Mike felt that attending classes through CCLB was a positive and rewarding experience. He obtained his high school diploma within just one year of joining the Corps.

“There were fewer students than in a regular high school so we got a lot more attention than we would from the teachers in a traditional school. We got a lot more one-on-one attention,” said Mike.

Within a few years of receiving his diploma, Mike was promoted to a Supervisor position with CCLB. He’s been with the Corps ever since.

“What’s kept me here is that I’ve kind of grown into my position,” said Mike. “I like working with young people and trying to make a difference in their lives. I’m just trying to help give them that second chance that somebody once gave me. So I’m basically just returning the favor.”

As a Supervisor, Mike teaches new Corpsmebers some of the skills he learned from his own Supervisors when he was a Corpsmember. Among other projects, Mike has led his crews in landscaping, habitat restoration, stream cleaning, and litter and weed abatement efforts.

“None of my days are average working with young people, but basically I a) Ensure my Corpsmembers are safe when working in the field, and b) Ensure that they do the project properly,” said Mike. “I educate them and teach them not only the various skills that we use out in the field, but I also educate them in how to conduct themselves as young adults should. So it’s basically the whole gambit…I teach them work skills, but also work habits, like how to be responsible and how to become a productive employee.”

Though he was an extremely successful Corpsmember, Mike says that he has achieved his greatest accomplishments with CCLB as a Supervisor. For Mike, it is very gratifying to see his Corpsmembers get promoted within the Corps or move on to a post-secondary education opportunity.

“Training new people and actually having them succeed and receive additional promotions…that’s a great feeling, that’s what makes me feel the most accomplished,” said Mike.

Having been a Corpsmember himself, Mike feels like he’s in a good position to understand what his crewmembers might be experiencing. Still, being a Supervisor is very different from being a Corpsmember.

“When I was just a Corpsmember, I was more worried about just getting my life back on track and doing the assignment in front of me. Now, as a Supervisor, I have to show a lot of leadership and focus on changing the lives of the Corpsmembers and actually educating them,” said Mike. “I almost feel like a parent when I’m around my Corpsmembers…They have a lot of things going on in their lives and in some cases I have to step in and be the parent for a Corpsmember. So I’m in more of a role model position versus when I was concerned just with myself and my own future back when I was a Corpsmember.”

Mike’s busy schedule has prevented him from finding the time to use the scholarship money he received as a Corpsmember, but he plans to eventually earn some kind of higher degree. He knows he wants to continue working in conservation and hopefully earn positions with greater levels of responsibility. For the foreseeable future he is very content to stay with Conservation Corps Long Beach.

To young people thinking about joining a Corps, Mike says:

“Just don’t lose sight of your goal and the reason why you came into the Corps. Don’t worry about what other people might be telling you – just stay out of the drama. Keep sight of your goal of getting your high school diploma and take advantage of the second chance that you’ve been offered. Just keep focused.”

A Good Environment: James Zmudzinski shares why Fresno Local Conservation Corps is the place for him


Where are they now? – Catching up with 2006 Corpsmember of the Year,
James Zmudzinski


James at The Corps Network 2006 National Conference in Washington, DC
 

James Zmudzinski, formerly a Corpsmember with the EOC/Fresno Local Conservation Corps, won Corpsmember of the Year in 2006 for his commitment to service and self-improvement. Read below to find out what he's been up to since accepting his award, or find out more about James and his Corps experience by reading his bio from our 2006 National Conference.

James Zmudzinski started working at a young age. His dream was to build up his savings and eventually own an auto mechanic shop. However, there was a time when this goal seemed impossibly out of reach. James had never finished high school and barely earned enough money to support himself. As James says, he started making bad decisions and often got into trouble. When he realized it was time to get serious, James joined the EOC/Fresno Local Conservation Corps (LCC).

James quickly became a vital member of LCC’s Flood Control Basin Maintenance Program. His supervisors saw that he was a self-starter and appreciated his positive attitude. When he wasn’t working with the crew, James proved his dedication to self-improvement by taking full advantage of the life-skills courses offered at LCC. He also applied himself in the classroom and eventually earned his high school diploma through the Corps’ charter school. He then took a few college classes with the AmeriCorps Education Awards he earned as a Corpsmember. James says his overall experience as a Corpsmember and student with LCC was significantly better than his previous high school experience.

“The part of this program that worked for me was…well, basically all of it,” said James. “The people that work here, the case managers…if you need help with anything or if you think you’re going in the wrong direction, they’re always there. It was like everybody had open arms, so it was an easy place to be.”

James worked his way through the ranks at LCC. He was hired to be a Crew Leader and eventually earned his current staff position as a Supervisor. James has now spent over seven years with the Corps.

“I like the environment here. I started from the bottom and made my way up. Working with the youth in the area – that also made me stick around,” said James.

As a Supervisor, James leads LCC crews that assist with grounds maintenance projects for housing authority properties. His crews mow the grass, trim trees, prune bushes, and generally make sure the grounds are in good condition. James is now considering opening his own landscaping business.

Though he sees landscaping as a good way to make money, James still has his heart set on becoming a certified mechanic. He says he is practically a partner in the mechanic shop where he currently helps with auto repair work. His passion is restoring old cars.

“I’ve got to have cars in my life,” said James.

Between working at LCC and working on cars, James participates in a car club in his free time. Many of the club’s members are people James grew up with. They get together to attend car shows and host barbeques and family functions. Around the holidays, they participate in Toys for Tots and distribute food to families in need. James wants to be a positive role model and set a good example for his two children.

“My actual father was never around, so I’ve been serious about being there for my kids,” said James.

James isn’t sure where he would be today if he had never found EOC/Fresno Local Conservation Corps. As he says, “I hope I would be in a good place, but it’s hard to say. If I didn’t get the job here, the way I was going I would’ve been nowhere good.”

To you people thinking about joining a Corps, James says:

“It’s an experience. It can change you and hopefully it will. There are people here who can get you the help you need. It’s worth the time. Just give it a try. It’s not for everybody, but at least you get some experience out of it.”

2013 Corpsmember of the Year, Raghda Raphael



Raghda and her fiance

Raghda Raphael’s story is one of triumph over tragedy. She was born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1988 and immigrated to the United States in 2010. Though Raghda came to America as a refugee, her life in Iraq was once filled with happiness. As a child, she had many friends and lived comfortably with her family in her grandfather’s big house. She was fortunate to attend good schools and received excellent grades. Sadly, life for Raghda and her family changed once the initial hopefulness following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein faded and insurgents took power of Baghdad. Raghda was soon surrounded by the threat of car bombs, roadside bombs, and assassinations.

“All of the Iraqi people were feeling horror,” said Raghda. “We felt unsafe, fear, uncertainty, and confusion because of the unexpected events we were facing in our lives.”

In 2008, Raghda’s uncle, a 35-year-old father of six, was kidnapped by armed men and held prisoner. His captors contacted Raghda’s cell phone numerous times and demanded ransom money. Her family was ready to pay, but after a few days the insurgents decided they no longer wanted money – they wanted Raghda.

“I hung up the telephone and never spoke to the captors again.  I chose to live and for that my uncle probably died,” said Raghda. “To this day, we have had no contact with our uncle.  We do not know what happened to him.  All of us in the family feel very sad.”



 

Raghda was so shocked and saddened by this incident that she could not concentrate on school and failed the high school exit exam. A year later, when she attempted the exam again, she passed and was accepted to the University of Baghdad. She studied hard in school and she and her friends tried to lead normal lives, but every day was full of uncertainty. One day, Raghda and her peers were in a car that was attacked by insurgents. Bullets broke the back window of the car and blew out the tires. Iraq was not safe. Raghda and her family moved to Beirut, Lebanon in 2009.

“As happy as my family was to take this step, it was also the hardest decision we ever made in our lives because we were leaving our own country, home and friends, knowing it would be the toughest challenge to date,” said Raghda. “…The good thing was we knew we would not be [in Lebanon] for a long time; it was a waiting station for us.”

In October 2010, the family boarded a plane for America. Raghda was relieved to find safety in their new home of San Diego, but she felt isolated by her limited understanding of English. Things changed, however, when she followed in her brother’s footsteps and joined Urban Corps of San Diego (UCSD).

Raghda’s teachers at Urban Corps recognized her intelligence and encouraged her to practice her English. About a year-and-a-half after joining the Corps, Raghda passed the California High School Exit Exam and received an American high school diploma in November 2012. Through the help of her teachers, Raghda’s English has become so strong that she now acts as a translator and tutor for Arabic-speaking Corpsmembers, and she has spoken about the Corps experience at various events as a UCSD Ambassador.

“Raghda exemplifies the Corps ideals of service, perseverance and determination,” said Geneva Karwoski, one of Raghda’s supervisor’s at UCSD. “…Raghda is motivated to succeed in every aspect of her life. As a student, worker, and peer she has fostered a sense of community among Urban Corps’ diverse group of Corpsmembers. She is fearless about befriending people from cultures outside her own, and has inspired many of her peers to follow suit. Her strong sense of character and commitment to the guiding principles of the Corps has made her an unparalleled leader and mentor for other Corpsmembers.”

While attending classes and working towards her diploma at Urban Corps, Raghda also worked with the Corps’ Fire Fuel Reduction Program and the UCSD Recycling Buyback Center. Raghda says that the experience of building trails, thinning forests, and sorting recyclables has helped her build a strong appreciation of the natural world. As a cashier in the Buyback Center, she feels proud to be able to play a part in helping divert recyclables from the landfill. Raghda has inspired the rest of her family members to become more conscious about their recycling habits.

In addition to her work at Urban Corps, Raghda helps support her family by working as a restaurant manager in the evenings. She also recently enrolled in college and has been busy planning her wedding. Her dream is to eventually earn her master’s degree and become a math teacher for underprivileged youth. Math has always been Raghda’s passion:

“My teacher in Iraq used to tell me, ‘You are smart in math; you should be a math teacher!’ Then when I came to Urban Corps, my teacher there told me the same thing!” said Raghda. “I really enjoyed the time I spent working with other students as a tutor and mentor, and it is my dream to encourage that interest in other young women too.  I have recently learned that many young people are not meeting the appropriate math proficiency levels and that such deficiencies will have a great effect on their future career opportunities.  I hope to one day be a part of the solution to this problem and make math a fun and enjoyable experience for those that struggle with it.”

Coming to America was a turbulent experience for Raghda. It was difficult for her to adjust and immerse herself in a new culture, but, as she explains, the welcoming environment and supportive staff at Urban Corps helped her feel like she had finally found a safe, comfortable home.

“Urban Corps helped me realize my potential and gave me the tools I needed to succeed in a new country.  Without the Corps I would not be where I am today. I am grateful for the opportunity, and for all the people that have made a difference in my life. I look forward to the day when I can do the same for another young person.”

 

2013 Corpsmember of the Year, Brandon Penny


During his third week at Civicorps Learning Academy in Oakland, CA, Brandon Penny wrote a poem in which he stated, “Just because I don’t have my high school diploma doesn’t mean I am not smart.”

It has always been evident that Brandon is smart and inquisitive, but school was never his thing. Brandon dropped out of high school during his senior year after he failed the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) and couldn’t receive his diploma on time. Failing the test left Brandon frustrated and discouraged; the previous four years of school seemed like a waste of time.

Brandon didn’t have a job to fall back on after he left school. Without classes or work to keep him busy, he started thinking about the future. He knew it was his own responsibility to get back on track, but he didn’t have much initiative and he didn’t know where to turn. Then Brandon’s uncle told him about Civicorps. From the description his uncle provided, Brandon thought the Corps would simply pay him to go back to school and finish his graduation requirements. He was later upset to discover that becoming a Corpsmember also meant having to work. Soon after joining the program, however, Brandon embraced the Corps model and began making real progress.

“I learned I needed guidance and, most importantly, I learned to seek it,” said Brandon. “Once I started to understand the Corps and myself, I learned that I could perform at a high level and be accountable. I knew that if I wanted something, I had to earn it.”

Brandon worked with a number of organizations during his time as a Corpsmember. He gained valuable job experience as he helped complete environmental projects sponsored by the California Department of Transportation, the East Bay Regional Park District, the East Bay Water and Utilities District, and the Alameda County Flood Control and Water Conservation District. Brandon became skilled at using weed whackers, hedge trimmers, and chainsaws. He also developed a working understanding of basic landscaping and land management techniques.

“My favorite crew work was with the Alameda County Flood Control District (ACFC),” said Brandon. “I loved jumping in creeks, bucking down the pile, cutting down trees and trimming ivy.”

After about eleven months, Brandon’s supervisors promoted him to a Crew Leader position. This added level of responsibility gave Brandon the motivation and confidence he needed to finish his graduation requirements and begin planning for bigger and better things. He ended up earning perfect attendance awards for six consecutive months.

Upon graduating in December 2010, Brandon requested to be moved to the Corps’ recycling department. Jobs in the recycling department require a more specialized skill set and demand a higher level of responsibility, but that was exactly what Brandon needed. He didn't want to be seen as “just another lazy kid”; he wanted to set an example for his peers and be a model Crew Leader. After four months of working on the recycling center sorting belt, Brandon was promoted again and became an equipment operator. It was encouraging to be trusted with using forklifts and front loaders, but Brandon was determined to gain even more responsibility by becoming a truck driver; the highest position in the recycling department.

“Once I was promoted I knew that I wanted to become a truck driver.  Now that I reflect on the Corps’ impact on me, I have learned to always stay humble and keep striving to reach my goals,” said Brandon “It took me about six months to get promoted to become a truck driver…Trust me, it wasn’t easy. I had to prove to my supervisors that I was ready for the big step forward.  I really had to stand out from all of my peers. I knew I had to earn the trust of my supervisors. I had to come to work every day and be on time. I made sure if I said I was going to do something, I did it.”

Now that Brandon has his Class B driver’s license, he can consider a career as a commercial truck driver. If he does decide to pursue a new job, he’ll be able to advertise his many hours behind the wheel of the Civicorps recycling truck. His morning collection routes can sometimes span the entire Bay Area; one morning he might pick up recyclables in the Berkeley hills, while the next day he might need to drive the truck to Pinole, over 45 miles away. No matter where his route takes him, however, Brandon tries to finish early so he can return to the recycling center and help with whatever tasks still need to be completed. He’s more than willing to take a shift on the sorting belt or the front loader if one of his peers needs assistance.

Brandon is conscious of things he can do to help maintain a supportive atmosphere at Civicorps. His actions prove that he is committed to always being a positive influence on his peers. He first displayed this commitment within a few days of starting at the Learning Academy. A fellow student started to get agitated when he pressed Brandon about an assignment, but Brandon maintained his cool and managed to avoid a physical confrontation. He reminded his classmate that they were both at the Corps to learn and should support each other in their academics.

Another instance in which Brandon looked out for his peers also happened in school. He decided that something needed to be done about how the math instructor consistently struggled to maintain control of the class. Brandon observed that his fellow students had trouble understanding the instructor’s foreign accent, so he offered to be a teacher’s assistant and help field questions from the class. Brandon’s assistance allowed the teacher to do his job and helped the students understand the course content. No other teachers or administrators were aware of this arrangement; Brandon helped the instructor without being asked and without any outside organization. He simply saw a problem and did what he could to fix it.

Brandon is currently enrolled at Merritt College where he is working towards an AA degree. He hopes to eventually earn a bachelor’s degree in landscaping and maybe even open his own landscaping business. For now, Brandon sees himself continuing to work in truck driving and waste management. Wherever his future takes him, Brandon says he wants to make sure he always has time to be an active member of his community. 

“The most important thing I would like to be is a mentor in my community,” said Brandon. “I want to help the youth do positive things in life, like finishing high school, going to college, and moving out of the hood, just like I did. There are so many things that I want to do in the future, from being a professional truck driver, to getting married, to starting my own business, but most of all I want to be a role model. To reach my pinnacles in life, I have to take it one step at a time. I want to thank Civicorps for all the experience I have gained.  I received my diploma, became a Crew Leader and became a commercial driver…Without Civicorps I don’t know where I would be.”

2013 Corpsmember of the Year, Luis Gaeta



 

Luis Gaeta admits that there was a time when he had trouble prioritizing and could barely stomach the idea of having to finish all four years of high school. He rarely went to class during his junior year and subsequently dropped out. Though the prospect of no longer attending classes initially came as a relief, it didn’t take long for Luis to discover that the working world can be a harsh place for a young man without marketable skills or a high school diploma. He worked in retail, had a job as a referee at a paintball facility, and also worked as a security guard, but he still struggled to make ends meet. Additionally, his housing situation was unstable and his car constantly broke down. Maintaining such a hectic pace was difficult, but Luis had to keep up; he and his girlfriend were expecting a child.

“With all of the different schedules and expectations, I was beginning to feel overwhelmed and discouraged,” said Luis.

Luis knew his lack of a diploma held him back from a more comfortable lifestyle. He started to attend adult school in the evenings, but then his girlfriend’s uncle mentioned something about EOC/Fresno Local Conservation Corps (LCC): a program that, as it was explained to him, would teach him construction skills and basically pay him to finish up his graduation requirements. Luis couldn’t pass up the opportunity. He applied for a Corpsmember position and impressed staff members when, during his intake interview, he said he wanted to be the kind of Corpsmember that steps forward and looks out for the crew. Luis was accepted to the program and soon proved that he is a man of his word.

Luis completed 14 credits towards his high school diploma within just two weeks with the Corps. He knew he was finally in the right place and doing the right thing for his future. It wasn’t long before he earned his diploma, having already earned two Student of the Month Awards and an honor roll award along the way.

In addition to gaining high school credits with LCC, Luis gained practical job skills in a variety of fields. He ultimately received training in all five of LCC’s programs: Construction, grounds maintenance, recycling, green building maintenance, and fatherhood preparedness. Among other accomplishments, he earned his class C driver’s license, first aid/CPR certification, and forklift operation certification.

“Along with my academic failures, I hadn’t had much work experience outside of the retail and customer service field,” said Luis. “I came into the program hoping to learn some construction skills. I was willing to take anything that was given to me…To my surprise, my first day out I was already on the roof installing the sheeting with my peers. This just blew my mind because I am the type of guy that has a passion for this kind of hands on labor. It came to the point that I, above the rest, showed an interest to learn any and all new things.”

After serving as a Corpsmember for a little over a year, Luis was offered a position as an LCC Senior Corpsmember. In this role, Luis – who now has a baby girl – became a peer mentor with the Corps’ Proving Our Parenting Skills (POPS) program. POPS helps fathers, ranging in age from 16 to 30, learn how to become confident parents and responsible figures in the lives of their children and partners. Participants in POPS must complete a comprehensive fatherhood curriculum, anger management classes, and relationship-building classes with their child’s mother. The fathers can also take advantage of POPS family activities, such as “Daddy Days,” that provide opportunities for children and fathers to interact through Zumba classes, reading nights, cooking classes, and other family-friendly activities. POPS Participants also have access to free diapers, children’s clothing, and picture books. Luis’s job as a Senior Corpsmember mainly involved handling the POPS outreach and social media efforts, but he also had the responsibility of acting as a role model for fellow young fathers working their way through the program.

“I enjoyed trying to help these young guys want to be fathers. They already wanted [to be, so that made it enjoyable],” said Luis. “It was in this program that I was exposed to the media for my role as a father. I started doing interviews on the KSEE 24 news station. Then I went on to being interviewed for a few other channels and an article.”

While assisting with the POPS program, Luis also helped facilitate LCC’s seven-week Emergency Preparedness certification course. He worked alongside Josh Christopherson, a fellow with Mission Continues; a program that helps veterans extend their service into civilian life. Josh and Luis ultimately led over sixty Corpsmembers through the Preparedness course.

 “Luis was my right hand man,” said Josh. “He did an excellent job as a role model and leader throughout the summer.”

Luis had a wide range of experiences during his time with the Corps, but he particularly appreciated receiving exposure to the construction trades. Through building Habitat for Humanity homes and completing vocational coursework through LCC, Luis found he was drawn to electrical occupations. The LCC staff took notice and encouraged this interest.

“My supervisor, Craig Henry, saw this and pushed my knowledge beyond its limits,” said Luis. “While most other Corpsmembers were outside shoveling dirt or leveling the ground, I was inside installing outlets, luminaries, and switches. I loved learning about all the electrical components of construction.”

Building off his interest in the electrical trades, Luis is using the AmeriCorps Education Awards he earned through his service with LCC to attend Fresno City College in pursuit of an associate’s degree in electronic systems technology. Even with his parenting responsibilities and a full-time job with the Corps, Luis maintained a 3.67 GPA during his first semester. He hopes to eventually transfer to California State University, Fresno to receive his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. 

“Although I had many obstacles thrown at me, I had a will power that couldn’t be overcome by any complications. I have a drive to get somewhere and be something big. I allowed my weaknesses to become the reasons why I became strong. Having all these obstacles gave me the desire for something better in my life [and the lives of my family members],” said Luis. “…I would like to mentor the future generations with my knowledge and experiences. I want to give back to the Corps what they gave to me. If this doesn’t work out, I am looking forward to getting an entry-level job in the electrical industry. I would like to get into a company that will take me from the bottom and build up my foundation of electrical knowledge to the most it can be…I know with the skills and experiences I’ve accumulated at the Corps, I will be there in no time.”

 

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