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Mark Hayward's City Matters: Doing the work, making a difference

Joshua Merritt grew up in what he euphemistically calls a working class neighborhood of San Francisco.

There were drive-by shootings. Some of his friends were in gangs. Many lacked confidence in school.

"By the time the street lights were on, you needed to be indoors'" he said.

Despite his hardscrabble early years, the 24-year-old may be the best opportunity to get a struggling child at Gossler Park School on the right track.

Merritt has returned to Manchester for his second year hitch at City Year, the program that injects the inherent enthusiasm found in someone like Merritt in the city's six poorest, lowest performing elementary schools.

He and 49 others will be part teacher's aide, part cheerleader, part role model for students in those schools.

Clad in red shirts, they are at school before the school bell rings and they remain to run after-school programs once the teachers leave. Ten hour days are common for them.

"These kids are tough, you've got to earn their respect," said Harvey Vincent, a Delaware resident who, like Merritt, opted for his second year in Manchester with City Year. He remembers getting stares and smirks from fifth graders as he ungainly performed the calisthenic-dance routine that City Year volunteers begin the day with at Bakersville School.

But he stuck with it. Students recognized his sincerity when he coached them on debating skills while they reciprocated with tips on his jump shot.

"They want to test you out, make sure you are what you say you are," he said.

City Year came to schools four years ago during the first year of Mayor Ted Gatsas, touted as a way to give a low-cost, outside boost to elementary schools.Ben Dick, the president of the Manchester Education Association, said the first year had its growing pains. But he said elementary school teachers accept City Year. "I hear they're great with the kids, great for the district and dedicated to doing good work," Dick said.

Both he and Gail Dubois, the president of the union that represents school paraprofessionals, said they don't see City Year people as a threat to their jobs.

"Any positive influence they have in our building is OK with me," Dubois said. She said City Year volunteers work on attendance, student behavior, course work and parental involvement — duties that aren't the responsibility of paraprofessionals.

City Year claims its efforts are showing results. Last year, 90 percent of students tutored by City Year volunteers improved their literacy scores; 20 percent jumping back on track in a single year. A majority of students tutored in math were meeting expectations, City Year said.

On Wednesday, City Year volunteers pledged a year of service to the Manchester schools in a ceremony at Central High School.

Gatsas said they'll succeeded if they turn around the life of one child.

"Nothing can be as important to a child as knowing somebody believes in them," he said.

The work changes the life of the volunteers, too. Their program borrows some aspects from the military. They stand in formation, take an oath (which they did Wednesday), and forswear smoking, gum chewing, open shows of affection, even jaywalking.

Their poverty-level stipend ($550 every two weeks) means many live in the same neighborhoods as their students. Some are on food stamps. Others live a hyper-frugal lifestyle. With limited money, they end up volunteering for community events on the weekend.

"It gives them a chance to not have very much and explore different ways of finding satisfaction," said Pawn Nitichan, executive director of City Year New Hampshire.

Merritt said a year of City Year prepared him for the working world. He shakes hands. He makes eye contact with others. He is confident in his speech.

And he's learned about human nature. Last year at Gossler Park, he often complimented a withdrawn fifth grader on the beauty of her eyes, a unique mix of green and hazel. On the final day, she told him that his compliments gave her the courage to attend school.

"That helped me realize," Merritt said, "how important it is to do the little things, and how far those things go."

Mark Hayward's City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and He can be reached at

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