Reco Sanders ’11 receives statewide honor for his work with at-risk youth
by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
June 12, 2013
Reco Sanders '11 recently received a state award in honor of his work with at-risk students in a Los Angeles-area middle school. His experience as an AmeriCorps volunteer was transformative for both students and teacher.
In the spring of his
senior year at Dickinson, Reco Sanders '11 was a competitive student-athlete, a Posse scholar, a student leader and an award-winning
mock-trial competitor who earned
All-American honors at a national tournament. His future as a successful lawyer seemed secure, and he took a year off before law school to give back to his community while preparing for his LSATs.
Then Sanders' career took an unexpected twist.
During a May 22 ceremony at the California
state capitol, Sanders was named California’s AmeriCorps Member of the Year in honor of his exemplary work as an City Year Los Angeles AmeriCorps volunteer. As his two-year assignment comes to a close, it's clear that Sanders' work has transformed not only the lives of some of the Los Angeles area's at-risk students, but his own life as well.
Math meets madness
For the past two academic years, Sanders has tutored math and English at Gompers Middle School, where all
students qualify for free or reduced lunch and only 30 percent are
native-English speakers. Resources are limited, academic role models are scarce and even the brightest and best students face formidable obstacles to success.
“Last year I had students in sixth grade who couldn't
multiply or divide, and some of them had been trying to learn this material for
years,” says Sanders, who spends 12 hours at the school during a typical work day. “Because I work
with a small set of students, I was able to build really strong relationships
with each of them and build trust so I could help them bridge that gap.”
His creativity comes into play. Last spring Sanders developed a “March Madness” math
competition to improve student math scores in advance of state standardized
testing. Approximately 60 students competed by completing one math problem per
day, and the top performers were dubbed “all-stars” and invited to a pizza
party. Week by week, each of their test scores showed improvement.
"It's amazing to see those light-bulb moments," Sanders says.
Inspired to inspire
Asked the key to his success in the classroom, Sanders says that he draws from his own student experiences.
A star student at his Pasadena high school, Sanders was knocked for a loop when he entered Dickinson as a Posse scholar and found himself adrift in his first-year classes. “I didn’t have the academic foundation most of my classmates had, and
I didn’t know what it looked like to succeed,” recalls Sanders, who went on to
deliver the Class of 2011's Baccalaureate
speech. “I tell my students that the thing that got me through wasn’t
giftedness or intelligence. It was grit and determination, and the people who
helped me along the way.”
Chief among those mentors was Professor of Political Science
Doug Edlin, who coached Sanders'
award-winning mock-trial team. Sanders credits Edlin with his successes at the mock-trial podium and beyond. “He was
genuinely invested in my success, and he turned all of my successes and
failures into learning experiences,” says Sanders. “It meant a lot to me to
have that presence and support.”
Today, Sanders plans to follow
that example. In June he will begin work as an AmeriCorps program
director with plans to apply for teacher's certification when that position
ends. He envisions a career working in middle or elementary school, since he believes that early intervention is key.
“I feel like I'm just getting to the tip of the iceberg of
what it must be like to invest in these students and see them make those kinds
of gains,” says Sanders. “And there's
nothing quite like investing in another person and then seeing that investment
played out in their success.”