As a student double majoring in Education Studies and Geography at Macalester College, Ella Schoenen spent a lot of time analyzing school policy and specifically, case studies of the area public school districts.
But she didn’t truly see what it was like to serve students in their schools until after graduating in 2018. She joined City of Lakes AmeriCorps and started her service with English-language learners (ELL) at Justice Page Middle School in Minneapolis’ Tangletown neighborhood. Firsthand, Ella said she could better appreciate how policy can come to life in the best interests of the school, community and staff.
“It was very valuable to be in a school full-time having this background in educational studies because I was able to observe and put pieces together and see some of the things that I learned about and how they played out,” she said. She said that the Justice Page community specifically provided a positive experience in seeing the importance of good educational policy in action.
“Seeing systemic issues in education playing out in my schools was valuable,” Ella said. “At Justice Page, I saw the administration successfully trying to create consistency and a defined culture there. They were trying to define that in a purposeful way. Everyone was on the same page, and it was a great experience.”
Learning Lessons in Middle School
Ella was looking for direct interactions with students in a school as part of her AmeriCorps service. Although she had volunteered in organizations where she worked with young people, she yearned for a more consistent embedded experience to learn directly from classroom teachers – experience she learned was provided in City of Lakes AmeriCorps.
At Justice Page School, Ella helped ELL students in three sections of seventh grade and also supported students in a science and math classroom. Most of her students spoke either Somali or Spanish as their main languages. Although serving in a school with young teens and tweens might scare some, Ella said she loved her interactions with middle school students.
“I love hearing them tell stories. Listening to a middle schooler tell a story can sometimes feel like falling down the stairs.Their words can’t come out fast enough, seemingly unrelated details barrel around, and they’re often winded by the conclusion. I love it.
Ella said that even though she had studied the importance that young people place on relationships, she was still surprised to experience exactly how crucial relationship building can be.
“I don’t think progress can happen socially, emotionally, academically with a student unless you have a strong, trusting, unwavering relationship with them,” she said. “It’s been very humbling for me to be in a position of power or authority and also try to foster personal relationships.”
Her interactions with one student in particular over the school year demonstrated this perfectly, she said.
“At the beginning of the year, he was super super quiet and shy. He didn’t ever speak up in class and was very hesitant to share even anything about himself in the get-to-know-you activities,” Ella said. “I love to crack jokes in class, and he really caught on to that. I’d say by the midpoint of the year, a lot of the speaking in our classes he was doing was cracking jokes and cracking jokes with me – gentle jabs, and not disrespectful or anything – and I think that because he could talk to me like that, and still feel heard and respected, he started to feel that with his peers as well.”
By the end of the year, she said he regularly shared in class, often with humorous remarks, and he felt completely comfortable speaking.
Seeking Community and Connections
Ella said she had considered AmeriCorps service for some time before her graduation from Macalester, and she researched several potential programs. Ultimately, City of Lakes AmeriCorps’ connection to Minneapolis Public Schools was a great selling point. She said that the City of Lakes program managers offered to make introductions to people in the school system and set up informational interviews for members who were interested in learning more about their positions.
Ella said she also was looking for an AmeriCorps program that provided a built-in community, and City of Lakes AmeriCorps – which groups its members by cohort and regularly meets with the cohort – is set up in that way.
“Going to a program with a cohort was really attractive to me, especially coming out of a small college where a lot of my classes were small and I developed relationships outside of that class,” she said. “I liked the idea of being able to continue that out of college.”
Her Future Career Path
Ella completed her term with City of Lakes AmeriCorps this week and received some fantastic news: She was offered a position as an associate educator at Seward Montessori School in Minneapolis, where she will work full-time starting this fall. She said her service with students at Justice Page Middle School and meeting with social workers in the Minneapolis Public School system has steered in the direction of social work, and eventually, she plans to use her AmeriCorps education credit to pay for a Masters in Social Work – preferably at a college that matches the education award.
Ella said that City of Lakes AmeriCorps has provided the perfect launching pad for a future in education – and she also said it’s a great way to simply test the waters in education if you are not sure.
“It’s just been an amazing experience. I would 100 percent recommend this program for anyone who ever thought they might want to work I education. There are so many supports set up for you in this program,” she said. “If you get in and you love it, there are so many jumping-off points, and if you get in and it’s really challenging for you, the team at city of Lakes is ready to help accommodate you and help you be successful in any way that you can.”
— Shayla Thiel Stern