City Year, the red-jacket clad groups of teens once seen fanned out across the city doing a myriad of duties, has morphed from an organization that has done a lot of everything to one that focuses strictly on educational programming.
The organization wrapped up the bulk of its academic year programming with last Tuesday’s citywide spelling bee tournament, in which groups of City Year-affiliated students battled for the title of top speller.
“We had 16 of our schools represented, and there were about 60 students who participated,” said City Year corps member Rachel Broder. “Teams of four competed, and it gave them a chance to get to know students from other schools and build relationships.”
City Year has been building relationships since being founded in 1988 by Harvard Law School roommates Michael Brown and Alan Khazei, who, according to City Year, felt that young people could use their youth, energy and intuition in confronting many of the communal ills facing society. City Year now operates in 22 cities with international outposts in London and Johannesburg, South Africa; this is City Year’s 15th year operating in Philadelphia.
City Year has lived up to that premise, by either leading or being the prime sponsor of several national days of service — including the recent Comcast Cares Day of service, which helped spruce up Martin Luther King Jr. High School.
“Comcast Cares Day is an extraordinary event — a transformative volunteer initiative by a company with a tremendous civic spirit. It’s always a big day on the City Year calendar,” said Brown, who also serves as CEO of City Year. “Many of the idealistic young adults from City Year who will serve alongside Comcast joined our corps because they were inspired to step forward to serve.”
City Year’s shift to a more education-heavy programming model has also produced several national pro-education initiatives. “In School & On Track: A National Challenge” is a paradigm that will connect a City Year corps team or member to more 50 percent of the failing school students throughout City Year’s 22 locations; and City Year has partnered with Communities in Schools and Talent Development for the “Diplomas Now” program, which will work with at-risk middle school students to help stem the dropout rate.
On a more localized level, City Year sponsors several education initiatives in the schools it serves, including Homework Zone, Afterschool Heroes, Project PEACE, Chess Club, Fashion Club, Civic Engagement Club and Basketball Club.
The slight shift of focus to an education-dominant model has been an easy transition, especially when one considers the benefits and results, said City Year Co-Executive Director Loree Jones.
“City Year is now a different organization than it was many years ago,” Jones said, noting that the organization now operates out of five charter schools in addition to the 14 public schools it has a presence in. “We have teams of groups sent into schools, and they are there full-time, working all day in the classrooms and in the after-school programs.
“There are there at 7:30 in the morning and run programs until 5, 6 in the evening.”
Volunteers 17-24 years in age sign up for a full year of service in the schools, focusing the bulk of energies and resources on students in grades 6–9, Jones said, effectively placing a workforce inside the schools.
“The early warning indicator data shows that as early as sixth grade, kids that have poor attendance, poor grades and failing math or reading have a 35 percent chance of dropping out, and we’re primarily working with those students. So [City Year volunteers] are in schools to provide academic support, and also serve as mentors and role models,” Jones said. “They also create and promote a positive school environment with special assemblies and attendance initiatives. The [at-risk] kids don’t know we’re focusing on them, but our corps members are.
“The teams greet the students, and also work with them in sports, arts and other self-esteem components.”
Aside from the wholesome afterglow that comes with giving back to the community, the City Year corps volunteers also earn a stipend of $200 a week through the partnership with AmeriCorps; volunteers also receive a scholarship from AmeriCorps at the conclusion of their year of service. Overall, volunteers must commit to 1,700 hours of service, which equals more than 10 hours a day for the four days per week that the corps serve in the schools. And on Friday, they attend day-long training or professional development sessions.
“The volunteers are all trained, passionate and fully committed,” Jones said, while indicating that she expects the local chapter to grow to 250 corps members by next year. “And the relationship with the school district has been great. We survey principals in the schools we service, and we find that principals want to have us in their schools.”