How ‘shared values’ between Detroit Pistons, City Year support academic, social growth of students

Vince Ellis
Special for Pistons.com

Earlier this year, the Detroit Pistons Foundation announced a three-year grant extension to support City Year’s mission to place AmeriCorps members within Detroit public schools to increase the graduation pipeline.

When he was younger, Detroit Osborn senior Cory Weeks admits he was a handful.

Grades were a problem. Anger was an issue as a freshman.

“I really had a bad attitude,” he said recently. “I was always mad. People thought I had anger issues, but I really didn't. I don't know what it was.”

Now a senior, Weeks is a standout on the Osborn football team. A defensive back, he had two interceptions in an Osborn victory earlier this season over Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard.    

He doesn’t anger as quickly, and he hopes to go to college. He credits his growing maturity to help he received from City Year Detroit as a ninth grader.

“It helped me a lot,” Weeks said. “When I was in ninth grade, a (City Year AmeriCorps member) helped me with my grades. They kept me out of trouble and told me some stuff that helped me become a better student.”

Earlier this year, the Detroit Pistons Foundation announced a three-year grant extension to support City Year’s mission to place AmeriCorps members within Detroit public schools to increase the graduation pipeline by deploying teams to schools to provide academic, social and emotional support to students in Detroit.

Since 2016, more than $850,000 has been committed to City Year Detroit, which currently supports Osborn. The extension will allow City Year to expand to an additional school.  The Pistons are also providing an additional $50,000 gift to match a grant from the NBA Foundation.  This grant is part of a national strategy to further support capacity for eight City Year sites across the nation to build an AmeriCorps member career development platform.

“Education is a powerful tool that can transform people’s lives and help revitalize communities,” Pistons owner Tom Gores said at the time of the announcement.  “We want to continue to inspire these kids, give them a reason to dream and then provide the resources they need to make those dreams come true.”

The commitment goes beyond money. Players have showed up to encourage Osborn students. Perfect attendance and school improvement are rewarded with Pistons tickets.

“The money is certainly helpful, and the financial investment has helped us grow our organization over the years to serve more students,” City Year executive director Andrew Stein said. “That's terrific, but there are partnerships where just the alignment on values is so strong and those are the partnerships that just have such deep meaning.

“That's how we feel about the Pistons.”

What City Year Detroit provides to students

Ciera Murden, a recent Michigan State graduate and a product of Detroit Public Schools, was looking for a way to give back to her community.

That is when she discovered City Year.

“When I heard about how they go into schools and how they train and how they are actively in the schools helping the students - not necessarily being the actual teacher - but providing that support in the classroom, I knew that it was exactly what I needed when I was younger, when I was in middle school and high school,” Murden said.

Why did Murden need an organization like City Year when she attended Detroit Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies?

“I was just always looked at as a problem child,” she recalled. “That really impacted me because I started to think I was the problem. I started to think that no one wanted to have anything to do with me.”

College is where she realized she just needed understanding and empathy.

“I'm not a problem; I just needed more support, more direction,” she said. “I needed more people inside of the schools or people inside of my community who just genuinely wanted better for me without always blaming me for everything.”

And that’s what City Year provides.

Murden, a Human Development and Family Studies major, and other City Year AmeriCorps members arrive mornings for a brief session before students arrive. The session ends with words of encouragement and then AmeriCorps members go to the front of the school to greet students. If there’s inclement weather, the greetings come in hallways. The first hour is spent walking hallways, offering assistance to students.

AmeriCorps members assist teachers. Murden helps out with a ninth grade history course. She follows lesson plans so she can be in position to help students who might need extra tutoring. Murden also updates the bulletin board that lists Michigan colleges, GPA requirements and SAT requirements. She counsels students to help prepare them for college.

It’s great training for Murden, who hopes to start a nonprofit one day to serve her community.

“I know how hard it is being a black, young woman,” she said. “I really just don't want any other girls to feel the way that I felt. That's really just where it comes from. “I know that all of these other girls would probably have the same issues that I did.”

Why City Year Detroit needs support

City Year and AmeriCorps recruit young people from different backgrounds. Three quarters of corps members are college graduates, but volunteers are 18-25. The majority are people of color who are from the Detroit area.

Corps members earn a living stipend. They get health insurance at the end of their year of service, and at the end of the school year, they receive an award of just more than $6,000 that can be used for any educational purpose. Also, there are many colleges and universities that provide additional scholarships specifically for young people who have done a year of service with City Year.

“It is a great way to get involved in your community,” Murden said. “It is a way to get to know those around you and is also a way to connect with more youth in the community and youth in the city. City Year does an amazing job at supporting the members that are a part of their organization.

“There's not one time where I felt like I was turned away. And they support you in any aspect professionally, personally. And they're always there for whatever you need. So even if you just need like a listening ear about something, they keep things confidential.”

The Pistons support several other Detroit-based nonprofits like the Bing Youth Institute and S.A.Y. Detroit working to support youth in the majority black city.

“The NBA and the Pistons have been leading on speaking out about racial injustice,” Stein said. “To be a partner of the Pistons, I know what that means to the corps members who choose to serve here, to the students that we work with, to know that we're a partner of the Pistons says something about our shared values between City Year and the Pistons.”

Stein added data suggests students who work with City Year corps members have improved on their reading, their math and their attendance compared to peers without City Year.

Weeks does have one suggestion. City Year supports Osborne with events and initiatives and events focusing on attendance, behavior. Relationships established during freshman year are maintained, but most of the service model is geared toward ninth graders.

“I wish they helped all grades,” Weeks said. “I still need a little help, but I'm working on it.”

City Year Detroit is accepting applications from young people who would like to help. Go to cityyear.org for more information.