10/02/2014 09:00 am ET

Service And Opportunity Go Hand in Hand


When I was teaching a class of 8th graders in Charlotte, NC, there was a student -- I'll call him Robert here -- that had a very energetic, attention-seeking personality. It was rare for a day to go by that didn't include a solo dance party performed for the class' amusement.

While preparing to teach one day, I learned that Robert was not in school because his father had passed away a few nights before. I was shocked when I saw Robert enter my classroom later that afternoon. Instead of being at home with his family during the immediate grieving period, he decided to join my class.

He approached me with tears rolling down his face. I asked him why he had chosen to come to class. Naturally, I felt he should be at home with his family to grieve. He replied, "I'd rather be here at Citizen Schools. I needed to get away."

His strength amazed me. That moment struck to the core of why I was in the classroom that day: to show students that where you come from and the challenges you face shouldn't distract from your future dreams and pathway. To be able to create a safe and comforting space for Robert to learn and explore his interests made a world of difference to him and was exactly why I chose to serve as an AmeriCorps Teaching Fellow with Citizen Schools.

Supporting students holistically by connecting them with mentors and role models who provide academic support and opportunities for real-world learning is essential to boosting achievement and building social networks. Citizen Schools partners with public middle schools in low-income communities to lengthen the school day and fill the additional hours with connections to caring adults and inspiring learning experiences.

For many students like Robert, who face challenging circumstances in their daily lives and often attend under resourced schools, chances to discover new passions, create something they are proud of or give back to their community can be rare.

At a time when the nation should be most unified, ensuring economic sustainability for the future generation, our school systems and communities are overwhelmed with prevailing inequitable conditions. These unfair disparities contribute to not only the achievement gap, but an opportunity gap, existing broadly between the experiences provided to students from low-income communities and their peers from affluent families. By the time they reach 6th grade, students from middle and upper-income families have likely spent 6,000 more hours learning than their lower-income peers.

At Citizen Schools, we are invested in creating a platform that allows aspiring educators and change-makers to make a difference in the lives of students, either right out of college or even midway through one's career.

AmeriCorps Teaching Fellows not only build academic skills, but also do the kind of educating not measured on standardized tests, such as emotional support and social capital. External evaluations have shown that Teaching Fellows play a key role in long-term gains too, erasing achievement gaps in passage of standardized tests, on-time high school graduation, and college enrollment.

By giving two years of service, Teaching Fellows provide students like Robert with 900 extra hours of learning. This equates to an extra year of academic gains and countless chances for students to be successful and to utilize their academics in real-world settings.

There is a sense of individual empowerment that comes from being a Teaching Fellow that I felt on that day with Robert and have seen the benefits of years later. By leveraging personal strengths and talents, Fellows elevate the academic and social achievement of middle school students and increase family engagement. In the process, students grow and so do they.

The Fellowship is an opportunity to teach students, serve the community and grow professionally -- a unique balance of national service and accelerated career growth. Teaching Fellows are able to develop an acquired skillset that is not only useful in the public or nonprofit sectors, but transferrable in other industries as well, which makes them more competitive and marketable in the global workforce.

Because of programs like AmeriCorps that engage Americans in intensive national service efforts, there is a collective opportunity for Citizen Schools and other organizations to reimagine the American school day and bolster student support systems.

If you're up for the challenge, join the movement to begin using your personal talents to make a differencefor students!

If you're interested in becoming a Citizen Schools National Teaching Fellow, you can apply on our website. We will start accepting applications for the 2015-2017 National Teaching Fellowship cohort in early October 2014. You can learn about our application process, by visiting our site.

Citizen Schools is a partner of Cisco CSR. Cisco sponsors The Huffington Post's ImpactX section.