From her earliest days growing up in Colombo, Sri Lanka, entrepreneur, technologist and philanthropist Tushara Canekeratne has understood the power of relationships and community to change lives. Raised in a home and a culture that highly valued collective well-being and education, Tushara grew up with an expectation that she “had to do things for others,” a commitment reflected in her long-standing support for City Year.
“I believe that City Year is a life-changing year, as much for the AmeriCorps members as the students they serve, she says. "And I believe, just as my parents did, that education can change lives. City Year puts that belief into action.”
Tushara’s own life was transformed by her sixth grade math teacher, Mrs. Gamalath, who recognized Tushara’s potential and pushed her to excel at a time when girls were not always encouraged to master math and science. “If you are lucky, there are one or two people who take an interest in you when you are young and influence you,” Tushara says. "I was very fortunate to grow up in a family culture where education was valued and to be touched by so many caring and talented educators who had the best interest of the student at heart."
Her teachers' and family's influence guided Tushara’s decision to attend Loughborough University in the United Kingdom where she became one of only a handful of women to graduate with a computer science and mathematics degree in the 1980s. This led her to co-found several technology companies in Massachusetts and later become founder and CEO of Nadastra, Inc., a global services company focused on business operations transformation. Actively involved in the Boston-area philanthropic community, Tushara serves on several boards including: Brigham and Women’s Hospital Advisory Council, Board of Directors for The Home for the Little Wanders, Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean’s Leadership Council and Learn to Change the World Campaign Co-Chair & Executive Committee, Harvard University Campaign Executive Committee, and Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Coalition steering committee. She also serves on the Finance and Audit Committees of City Year's national board.
Tushara was a 2015 Fellow and 2016 Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, and 2017 Distinguished Career Institute Fellow at Stanford University, an opportunity that gave her the chance to connect with a diverse field of leaders and reflect on leadership, core values, life priorities and social impact. Over the years, Tushara has chosen to invest and support initiatives designed to make social impact on young people, leadership and education. Tushara’s philanthropic efforts align with her focus on education and investment in young leaders.
As an entrepreneur and champion of several organizations and educational institutions, Tushara has focused on building the capacity of employees and students to excel and on cultivating mentoring relationships as levers to achieve organizational excellence, accelerate personal growth and give back to the community. "I really believe that a core aspect of leadership is making the people around you feel valued and empowered," she says. Tushara recognizes these same values in City Year’s approach of investing in human capital and nurturing a sense of appreciation, respect and community in its staff and AmeriCorps members. These young adults, in turn, model and share these priorities with the 205,000 students they serve every day.
More than anything else, City Year’s 3,100 AmeriCorps members inspire Tushara and serve as an example to her two sons, Kavan and Shane, to do their part to make a difference.
Her conversations with City Year AmeriCorps members about their work in schools have shown Tushara that they, too, share her belief in community, mentoring and helping others. That is one of the reasons Tushara is committed to supporting City Year through the Red Jacket Society. It’s also why she is so enthusiastic about tools and programs that help corps members more effectively assist students and promote their own personal and professional growth, such as an innovative youth development framework that is showing powerful results in several City Year schools, including Tushara’s hometown of Boston.
Tushara’s focus on investing in people and building strong connections has also inspired her to make a significant philanthropic investment in City Year’s LEAD program. The executive leadership development program selects a small group of high-potential City Year staff each year and trains them for leadership positions in sites and at headquarters. “It starts with each person’s strengths,” said Mithra Irani Ramaley, City Year's Chief People Officer, who oversees the program. “LEAD is based on the belief that people are happiest and most productive when they are doing something they are passionate about and good at, and that their success benefits a wider community.”
“To scale for impact, you need leaders,” Tushara says. “As City Year gets closer to its 30 year anniversary, the organization’s impact keeps growing, and it’s important that City Year cultivate and retain its incredible talent.”
On a warm sunny morning in June, City Year AmeriCorps member Kelly Kittredge is working with a small group of students who arrive at 7:30 to attend a “Morning Class.” This extended day program offers students a chance to receive tutoring and extra homework help while building positive relationships and social skills before school starts at 8:30 a.m. Today is a “spirit day” at Sarah Greenwood School, a K-8 dual language school in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, and students have been encouraged to wear fun outfits. Two of the girls, Jasmine* and Maria*, are wearing oversized glasses and suspenders, while a third, Rachel*, decided to forgo a costume.
Once math homework is complete, the girls turn their attention toward finishing scrapbooks with pictures and memories from their year together. Kelly asks Jasmine, Maria and Rachel to write how the early morning class has helped them and what they appreciate most about one another on thin strips of construction paper that Kelly will later glue into the scrapbooks.
The word of the day is ‘appreciation,’” Kelly tells them. “What are the types of things you appreciate about each other and Morning Class?”
I appreciate you because... “You are a great friend and you bring me joy,” writes Maria.
What I like best about Morning Class is… “Having fun and being who I am,” writes Jasmine.
How do I feel like I belong in this group? “I feel like I belong here because I learn a lot of things and it’s safe,” writes Rachel.
The girls didn’t start the year as close friends. Fourth grade is when cliques can take hold, says Virginia Bette, City Year’s Impact Manager at Greenwood, and Jasmine, Maria and Rachel were in different social circles in September. Using training and curriculum developed by City Year, Kelly’s Morning Class focuses on engaging the students academically and socially so that they will want to come to school and go to their classes “ready to learn” – confident, focused and supported.
“We’ve been creating a community so that everyone feels safe to share,” Kelly says later. “Kids want to talk and want everyone to listen to them. The idea of our group is that everyone’s voice is heard, and we explore what the students are passionate about.” Research shows that when students feel engaged with their learning and have formed positive relationships with at least one adult at school, they are more enthusiastic about coming to school and can achieve at higher levels – critical outcomes City Year AmeriCorps members work to ensure throughout the academic year.
One of the tools Kelly has used to help these students strengthen their confidence, connect to one another and build positive relationships is the Clover model, a youth development framework that recognizes each young person’s strengths and builds on them. This approach helps corps members like Kelly forge strong relationships with students, understand their talents and needs, and cultivate key social-emotional skills that students need to succeed, such as empathy, self-confidence, resilience, reflection and a deeper sense of belonging and connectedness to others.
The Clover model is a key component of City Year’s social-emotional development approach, and stems from an understanding that a student’s academic success is directly tied to his or her emotional well-being. A growing body of research shows that in order to thrive as adults, all children need to cultivate foundational skills that enable them to learn, self-regulate and achieve at high levels. These skills help children recover after setbacks, make decisions, work in teams and develop compassion for themselves and others. This framework is one tool that helps AmeriCorps members cultivate and support these skills and ensure their students succeed academically.
This approach offers a double benefit to City Year, Mithra Irani Ramaley says. Not only does it help students to thrive, but it also represents an investment in human capital, as it helps AmeriCorps members understand one another better and work together as a team.
Developed by the PEAR Institute (Partnerships in Education and Resilience), a joint initiative of Harvard University and McLean Hospital, the Clover model has been used for several years by City Year to train school-based City Year staff and AmeriCorps members. City Year is planning to expand this training throughout the network starting in the fall of 2016.
Using the four elements or “leafs” of the Clover Model, Kelly has learned that instead of labeling a student as “fidgety and unable to control her body,” for example, she recognizes that he or she has an overly engaged “active engagement” leaf and that their lesson would be more effective if it started with a game or a walk and talk.
Kelly, an athlete who played ice hockey in Austria for a year after graduating from Brown University, says she often incorporates physical activities into Morning Class to help keep the girls engaged, develop a sense of teamwork, and work off excess energy so they can concentrate. Many conversations with her students revolve around cultivating a greater sense of connection and empathy – hallmarks of the “belonging” leaf. And creating space for them to each talk and share their ideas encourages “assertiveness” and “reflection.”
This youth development approach has also helped Kelly relate to her fellow corps members, she says.
“Clover has given me a more holistic view of my students and their growth, and it’s helped me to reflect on my service as a corps member,” Kelly says. “For myself, I’m usually more focused on belonging and active engagement. It’s forced me to reflect, which is something I don’t usually do. And it’s given me a new way to talk about the needs of my students with my team.”
The near-peer relationships between students and AmeriCorps members, who are older than the schoolchildren they serve but young enough to relate to their perspective, indicate that corps members may be uniquely positioned to promote persistence, belonging, connectedness and other key social-emotional competencies. Studies have shown that when students feel connected to at least one significant adult in their education – a teacher, guidance counselor, or in the case of City Year, AmeriCorps members who serve as mentors, tutors and role models, for example - they experience greater engagement and satisfaction with school and can learn more and perform better academically.
Because social-emotional skills are critical to student academic success and positive long-term outcomes, City Year gathers data and tracks student growth in these key areas. AmeriCorps members like Kelly use a variety of tools throughout the school year, including a norm-referenced rating scale called the DESSA, or Devereux Student Strengths Assessment, and analyze student and teacher surveys to measure impact and figure out how City Year’s interventions can become even more effective. Results have been encouraging, with students at many City Year schools more likely to report a positive relationship with an adult at school who was not a teacher and teachers also reporting an improved school climate.
Fourth grade teacher Katie Ernst, who works alongside Kelly every day in her classroom, says that having a City Year AmeriCorps member who is attuned to her students’ academic and social emotional needs and strengths is invaluable.
“The students feel very affirmed by Kelly,” Ms. Ernst said. “They feel heard and accepted. Having two adults in the classroom who are both really in tune with the students helps them feel cared for and nurtured and loved.”
These strong relationships also help Kelly provide critical academic interventions that help students persevere, stay on track and tackle challenging material.
“It’s a good balance,” says Ms. Ernst. “When I have to be strict with a student, Kelly is able to get in a smile and a kind word. We are a united front.”
Because of schedule changes during the past school year, Ms. Ernst was assigned two fourth grade classes for several subjects, including English Language Arts, instead of one. She worried about how she could get to know all of her students well and meet all of their needs. Having Kelly in the classroom with her has made all the difference, she said.
“This year, I’m not able to connect with all the students the way I normally would,” Ernst said. “But Kelly has been able to foster relationships with all the kids. They look to her for assurance. If a student is struggling, it can be challenging to stop the whole class to address that. But because Kelly is there and can give them individual help, they feel supported by her, and I can continue teaching.”
One spring morning, a student became upset when sharing a story, and began to cry. Rather than disrupting class and losing valuable instructional time, Kelly was able to take the student out into the hallway and spend time with her, figuring out what was going on and helping her to process and recover. In a few minutes, the student was able to rejoin the class and re-engage in learning.
At 8:30 a.m. the bell rings. The regular school day is about to start. Jasmine, Maria and Rachel pass in their strips of construction paper, thank Kelly and say they’ll see her tomorrow.
Kelly pauses for a moment to read through some of the girls’ notes of appreciation to one another and to her. Tonight she will put the finishing touches on their scrapbooks.
How do I feel like I belong? “Because my friends give me respect,” wrote Jasmine.
What I like most about Morning Class: “Feeling safe and comfortable,” wrote Maria.
What did you learn about someone in your group this year? “That no matter what, you will always help me,” wrote Rachel.
* The names of Kelly’s students have been changed to protect their privacy.