City Year DC addresses the dropout rate in DC Public Schools by training 17-24 year old young adults who serve for one year (or more) as near-peer mentors for students at greatest risk of dropping out.
In 1990, City Year was founded in Boston, Massachusetts on the principle that young people would give a year of service to their local communities. Initially service opportunities were vast and varied, but eventually City Year focused on education and plugged these willing and energetic young people into local public schools. The model thrived as those who dedicated a year of their lives to service—called corps members—came alongside school administrators and teachers to address the needs of those at greatest risk of dropping out.
As of 2014, 40% of DC Public School students didn’t graduate on time. Of those that didn’t graduate, almost half are not currently enrolled in school. To put it into actual numbers, over 800 students didn’t graduate on time last year and nearly 600 have or are likely to drop out. That’s last year alone.
What’s even more staggering is that half of the students who drop out come from 12% of schools. This is not a coincidence. The students most at-risk of dropping out are gathered in a specific pocket of schools. It’s worth mentioning that this isn’t unique to DC necessarily; it’s a national trend.
Thus, the need for City Year is real for DC schools. Now in its 15th year, City Year DC has grown to 158 corps members serving in 13 schools and reaching 5,600 students.
Every 26 seconds in America, a student drops out of school. In 2013, the U.S Census reported that 2.2 million 18-24 year olds were not enrolled in school and had not completed high school. What happens to those millions of young people?
Well, to be blunt, the outlook is bleak. They earn approximately $1 million less than high school graduates. They are three times more likely to be unemployed and eight times more likely to be incarcerated. All in all, out-of-school, out-of-work youth cost American taxpayers around $1.6 trillion in increased social service costs, lost earnings and lost taxes over their lifetimes.
Clearly the individual and collective cost is staggering. So how do we identify what will cause a young person to drop out of school? What are the motivations and risk factors, and what type of intervention will provide a different alternative than dropping out?
City Year employs a model called Whole School, Whole Child. Studies show that kids at risk of dropping out can be identified as early as late elementary school. Corps members work with teachers and principals to identify students who need extra care and attention, and focus on the ABCs – attendance, behavior and course performance in math and english – to help students stay in school and on track to succeed.
Patrick Corvington, Senior Fellow at the Campaign for Grade Level Reading agrees: “By the time a kid is 8 years old, you can [typically] map out their future... Kids who aren’t reading at grade level by the third grade are 13x more likely to drop out of high school. Eighty percent of low-income kids are not reading on grade level. Eighty-six percent of low-income kids of color are not reading on grade level.”
City Year DC meets the needs of these at-risk students by increasing human capital in the high schools and feeder elementary schools in these wards.
City Year corps members serve as full-time, professionally trained mentors who tutor students one-on-one, provide additional support for teachers in classrooms, and coordinate programs and activities that benefit the whole school. Corps members help students keep track of those “ABCs” by:
- Coaching them and communicating with parents and guardians about attendance
- Holding morning or lunchtime clubs where students learn about healthy behaviors, self-management skills and having a strong, purpose-driven character
- Integrating with the school’s curriculum through in-class and after school instruction
City Year focuses their efforts on the students at greatest risk of dropping out. For DC Public Schools (DCPS), the greatest numbers of students dropping out are from schools in Wards 1, 7 and 8.
As City Year DC Executive Director Jeff Franco shares, “We focus our efforts on the areas and students that need us most. We want to ensure that 80% of our students get to 10th grade on track and on time. If this happens, that student is four times more likely to graduate on time.
It’s the day after her graduation from City Year, an organization she’s served with for the last two years.
After serving as a corps member for one year, followed by second year as team leader, DC-native Jasmine (Jay) spoke to Bittersweet about why she chose to serve, the lessons she learned and how City Year turned into a homecoming for her.
These were the hardest and best two years of my life. I always knew I cared about education, but now I want to be a teacher.Jasmine (Jay) SavoyCorps Member City Year DC
Tell us about your typical day as a City Year corps member
The first year is all about caffeine. You come to school [around 7:30am] and circle with your team and make sure you’re ready for the day. We did breakfast clubs, which were behavioral small groups with our kids. At 8:15, we’d go get our kids and have a 30-minute conversation and activity to work on their social and emotional skills.
After our morning duty, we went to class with our kids. We serve in the classroom all day long. Then, you do small groups at some point. I would pull my Math or ELA (English Language Arts) group based on where my teacher was with her schedule. We collaborate with the school and teachers to identify the kids that weren’t proficient so we could help them catch up. Our focus was to work with the students that are on the cusp and get them to cross over to being proficient in their Math and English.
We also did recess and lunch duty. Usually, when students go to special classes (like Art, Music, etc.) we had our planning time. It wasn’t a break – but we would eat our lunch while we were planning for lessons or school events. You end up doing a lot of work and planning at home as well. We also did afterschool programs, which we did the lesson plans for as well. After school programs run until 5:45pm, and included 80 to over 100 kids.”
What did you learn about yourself through City Year?
“During my first year, one of my biggest lessons was how to be part of a team. I have always been an independent person. I knew how to lead and motivate others, but learning how to be part of a team and how to lean on others was a real life lesson for me. It helped prepare me to be a team leader this year. And this year I learned how to have productive and sometimes difficult conversations with others, especially when we had so much to get done.”
I’m a product of public schools and I think that public schools can do great things if they have great people. That’s why I chose to work with City Year and DCPS.
Tell us about the school where you served
“This was one of those full circle things that I didn’t plan at all. They assigned me to Kimball Elementary (in Southeast DC), but I didn’t realize where it was until I started at the school. Suddenly, it hit me–I used to live down the street! I used to play at the rec center down the way. I used to ice skate at the park. We lived in that area for three years before we moved to other side of Southeast. My mom and my aunties all grew up in Southeast, so it’s nice to come back to a place I remember.
My first year we were engrained in the school; we were part of the glue for students. This year was different, partly because we had a lot more men in the building. Having grown black men in the school as examples for the students was really important to expand the kids’ horizons and give them more to aspire to. Last year, all my girls wanted to be teachers but none of the boys did. But now the boys want to be teachers too, because they have examples.
I remember having a conversation with a corps member who didn’t feel qualified to teach on black history because he’s not African-American. We had a conversation about why it’s important for him to engage and educate himself on the topic. I told him:
‘You don’t have to be an expert, and you don’t have to be black to teach black history. It’s history. You know the facts and all you need to do is share them in an unbiased way. I’m not asking you to educate them on how to be black. It’s about history. The mission is to educate them on what was.”
It was a difficult conversation to have, but his kids needed to know they could learn about their history from him, and he needed to know it was okay to learn and that he didn’t have to know everything.”
As a native of the city and the neighborhood where you served, what do you think is City Year’s impact on DC students?
“Obviously, it’s hard when the community has distrust for developers and outside organizations–which is sometimes warranted. But I think City Year has done a good job of integrating us into the community. One of the things we do during the first week of school (before the students arrive) is we get to know our teachers and help them set up their classrooms. City Year also has us do ‘Community Asset Mapping’ where we get acclimated to the area. As a team, we got on the B7 (bus) and went through the neighborhood and noted any place or resource that we saw. Then, we walked up to Fort DuPont, to the garden and the performing arts space; that’s how I learned about these places, by walking around that first week. I didn’t know those places existed when I lived here.
We also go to Advisory Neighborhood Committees (ANC) meetings–the governing body for the communities–as a team. We all attend once, but we try to have at least one corps member attend each meeting throughout the year. I ended up having one corps member who was really passionate about the ANC meetings. He went to one where they were talking about the potholes in the area. He took it upon himself to get flyers from the meeting to pass out to parents and let them know whom to contact about getting the potholes fixed. Our ANC has respect for us because they know we’re present in the community, not just at the school. We’ve established ourselves as these red jackets, and they know and trust us. Last year our team was really diverse and that was a great experience for our kids. To see our team working together broke down those differences for our students.”
What were some challenges you faced serving with City Year?
“For some corps members, they had to realize that we’re not here to ‘save the kids.’ We’re not coming in our capes. We’re here to encourage and come alongside. We have to prove why we belong in the community. For the corps members who had never been questioned because of their color or how they look, it gave them an idea of what our students deal with when they go across the river and downtown. A lot of the kids at our school have never been to the monuments, because they don’t realize they can go there.
Sometimes they don’t feel like they belong and they have to get past that to gain new experiences. So our corps members have to do the same and go through uncomfortable experiences to understand their students. I didn’t have that feeling growing up, because my grandmother took us into the city. I was a Smithsonian kid–every summer that’s where I was. I didn’t know that we weren’t well off, because we spent so much time in these spaces with all different kinds of people. We got to see the things that kids should see and experience. We try to provide those experiences for our kids. We take field trips for a reason. Last week, we took our kids to the Baltimore Aquarium. Some of our kids have never seen an ocean, but they got to touch a jellyfish.”
What’s next for you?
“I’ve always known I wanted to be in education and be a principal. I chose City Year because I wanted school experience, but didn’t think I had the skills or patience to be a teacher. I came to serve. But the teacher I served with my first year put the bug in my ear about teaching. She kept asking me if I was sure I didn’t want to teach. Then this year, my principal sat me down and told me that I could teach.
I needed that direct support, and her faith in me made me realize that I can be a teacher. So I just got into a Master’s program that will provide my teacher certification and I’m one step closer to becoming a teacher – and hopefully a school administrator one day.”
City Year’s strategy is largely based on human capital. Students at-risk need support, not only academically but also emotionally and socially.
While teachers and administrators aim to meet those needs, it’s often hard to meet students’ individualized needs when you’re outnumbered 30 to 1. And this is where City Year’s greatest opportunity lies: to fill the gap and help address student needs and prevent future dropouts.
When asked what makes City Year work, DC Executive Director Jeff Franco says it largely has to do with age. “City Year corps members range in age from 17 to 24 years old, so they’re not much older than the students they’re working with. That ‘near-peer’ student mentorship model means corps members are young enough to befriend students but still old enough to be their mentor. They fill a space that adults can’t fill.”
And then there’s the numbers game. While many nonprofit organizations have to rely on volunteers with limited available time, City Year’s corps members are full-time in local schools. In fact, corps members put in days of 10 hours or more. They are at the schools before students arrive and after they leave. With all that responsibility, it’s important for corps members to be supported. Teams of 8 to 12 corps members serve in each school, so they can build each other up, especially when they’re giving so much time and energy to support others.
So what kind of impact is City Year having?
Prevention can be difficult to measure. But by focusing on the “ABCs” that trigger a likelihood to drop out, City Year has seen results from their work in public schools.
- Of the elementary school students tutored by City Year DC, 86% and 80%, respectively, improved on their literacy and math assessments.
- 70% of 6th through 9th grade students tutored by corps members stayed on track or improved their English grade between the start and end of the year.
- 96% of principals and school liaisons agreed or strongly agreed that corps members impacted the overall attendance of students.
- Nationally, City Year helped achieve a 72% increase in the number of students classified as having strong Social-Emotional Learning skills, such as self-awareness, motivation and goal setting.
- Students gained an additional 22,000 hours of instruction due to City Year’s attendance programs.
Student success is achieved by a multitude of people working together, including teachers, corps members, parents, administrators, community leaders and the students themselves. Hear what many of these people have to say about the impact that City Year has on DC public school students:
“DC is the fastest-improving school district in the country. City Year has professionalized our teachers. They help our teachers be more effective and spend their time on teaching, rather than monitoring behavior.” – Kaya Henderson, Chancellor, D.C. Public Schools
“City Year is like an older brother or sister to me.” – Kelvin, DC elementary school student
“City Year creates a pipeline of community-oriented leaders for our city of DC.” – Mike & Missy Young, Horning Family Foundation
“Diamonte has had a red jacket in his life for five years. He told me I have big shoes to fill.”– Bria, City Year DC corps member
“I have been thrilled with the support and attention City Year has provided to our students throughout the year. They enhance the positive climate we set at Cardozo and their academic focus has been incredible. The double digit gains we've seen this year in our 9th grade academy promotion rate and the increases we've seen in our attendance rate wouldn't have been possible without them." – Sah Brown, Assistance Principal, Cardoza Education Campus
“I had a student from El Salvador who was really quiet, but he would always hang around and near me during school. One day, he told me the story of how his family had immigrated to the US and what they went through. At the end, he said ‘I’m telling you because I trust you.’ That was an incredibly powerful moment for me.” – Dwight Weingarten, City Year DC corps member (future DCPS teacher)
“City Year gave me lots of opportunities to speak and be confident in front of others. I even got a chance to visit the Pentagon and speak to them about what we do. At the end of my time, they thanked ME for my service. I said, ‘No, thank YOU for your service!’” – Nancy Flores, City Year corps member (moving to San Diego, CA to work for a nonprofit serving at-risk youth)
I believe in the power of young people. I believe in the power of corps members. As long as principals are asking us to grow, I’m going to push to provide more corps members.Jeff FrancoExecutive DirectorCity Year
Engaging with City Year DC
City Year relies on the enthusiasm and energy of young people who want to serve and do something that matters. That relentless optimism is undeniable anytime you talk to anyone involved with City Year. From the cheers that corps members lead every morning to welcome students at their schools to the annual “Idealism in Action” fundraising gala, there is a sense that City Year is not only committed, but expects, to change the lives of students.
Three years ago, the ever-enthusiastic organization went through a reality check. They knew that while their work was making a difference, there were still students not being reached and consequently at risk of dropping out. They decided to focus their efforts on the seven high schools that had over 50% of the dropouts in the District. Those seven high schools were primarily located in Ward 1 (central Northwest DC) and Wards 7 and 8 (Southeast DC). Starting in 2012, City Year focused on those seven high schools, and the 26 elementary and middle schools that feed into them. This “feeder-pattern strategy” is designed to place corps members where the need is greatest.
However, staffing all 33 schools was something that City Year didn’t have the financial bandwidth for. So they started with what they had and have gradually grown. During the 2013-14 school year, City Year was in 13 schools in DC. Next year, they’re committed to 16 schools. Executive Director Jeff Franco shared, “We had eight new schools who wanted us next year, and they fit our feeder-pattern strategy, but we only had the capacity to add three.”
That reality hasn’t quelled Franco’s optimism, though. It’s made him more focused. He shared that his goal is for City Year to support half of the kids at risk of dropping out. In order to do so, they would need to double their current number of corps members from 158 to 350.
They have the interest. Last year, City Year DC had nearly 800 applicants (ages 17-24) for 158 openings. Funding is the greatest challenge to their capacity. Funding for City Year corps members comes from a variety of sources: one quarter from Americorps funding, another quarter from the local school and the remaining fifty to sixty percent from corporate and individual private-sector donors.
Franco shared, “City Year has been in DC for 16 years, and we have gained a solid reputation with the community. The DC Public School system sees our values and wants us to play a bigger role in collaborating to impact the dropout rate amongst our young people. City Year has doubled in the last five years and we need to double again to reach the students who need us most.”
City Year believes in this mantra, and puts their confidence in the ability and enthusiasm of 17 to 24 year olds to not only serve, but also teach and influence students. Through each conversation with corps members, school administrators and students, I was impressed with the hope and tenacity that infiltrates each person touched by City Year.
The dropout rate amongst our students is a crisis that’s being met with a laser focus on the commitment needed to come alongside and provide opportunities to our children who need it most. I hope you’ll be as inspired and motivated to act as I was by the story of City Year DC.