Anna DiPerna has always been driven by the overwhelming sense of need in the communities she has worked with. As an undergraduate at Rice University in Houston, Anna started an after-school homework enrichment program at a nearby elementary school. After graduating, she was interested in staying in the out-of-school arena because she was excited about being able to teach, while also developing students’ leadership skills. With the Citizen Schools Teaching Fellowship, she was able to follow her passion for innovative youth education while remaining in the after-school sphere. At Citizen Schools, her dedication to helping as many students as possible grew. As she put it, “I’ve always been a helper.” Anna often saw a struggling student or family and instinctively wanted to help. Now, she continues to do so at the Landmark School for students with language-based disabilities.
Anna taught at both the Shaw and the Irving Middle School in her first year as a Teaching Fellow and then at the Harbor Middle School in her second year. In 2003, Anna was asked to be a start-up captain at a new school in Worcester. At the new campus, she guided the school’s transition to Citizen Schools status. After three years at Citizen Schools, Anna discovered that middle school was her favorite age group because, she says, middle schoolers are still “in a discovery stage…still learning about themselves and who they want to be in the world.” And because their self-perception hasn’t yet “solidified,” this is an important time to get them on the right path. The students at Citizen Schools certainly made an impact. “They are the reason I still work with kids. They made me laugh, they surprised me; I loved never knowing what to expect.” During her time at each campus, she learned how to build a team in the classroom, how to “work past the attitude” and bring the kids together. For Anna, helping her students was always the focus of her Teaching Fellow experience.
As her third year came to a close, Anna felt she still hadn’t reached enough children. Multiple students at her school in Worcester couldn’t even read single-syllable words; the school wasn’t helping them and Citizen Schools didn’t quite have the power to fix such a serious problem. She thought to herself “I would really like to help those kids at the bottom of the academic ladder.” So she moved to the Landmark School in Beverly, MA, a school for students with language-based learning disabilities where she teaches mostly eighth graders. Students that come to the Landmark School have not received appropriate and/or effective attention at their previous schools and have struggled academically and often socially as a result. At Landmark, every class is a special education class, and students are grouped according to their specific strengths and weaknesses. As Anna puts it, “we hit them from every angle.”
Anna’s favorite part of her job is seeing the changes in her students. Most kids come in with few academic skills and low self-esteem. The Landmark teachers work to build both their skill level as well as their sense of self-worth. According to Anna, this new type of education often “changes their personality too,” and their time at Landmark can serve as a “huge life-changer” for them. Within a year, the students become “hooked on themselves academically.” When they finally realize they are smart, then they start to succeed.
Anna acknowledges that from the Fellowship, she learned how to be a strong presence in the classroom and she still carries Citizen Schools’ “expectation of high energy.” In other words, the Fellowship taught her the importance of bringing enthusiasm to every lesson.
Anna is still looking for more ways to become involved in the community and to be of service to as many people as she can. She can’t stop thinking about “all those kids that are being overlooked.” Although she does tutor struggling kids who do not attend Landmark, she still wants to work with families who lack the money for a private tutor and the resources to find the Landmark School. Anna has recently begun volunteering at the local community center to try to reach those students with the highest needs.
Eventually, Anna would like to move into the public school system where the need is greater, although it’s been hard to make the move because the Landmark School has been such a great fit. For the time being, Anna looks forward to continuing her work at the Landmark School helping her students recognize their own abilities and reaching out to her community and as many families as she can.