Scaling up

City Year is a pretty unusual and impressive social-entrepreneurial organization (link). Founded in 1988 as a platform for providing young Americans an opportunity to provide a year of service in an urban environment, the organization has grown dramatically in the intervening 24 years. Here is the organization’s mission statement:

City Year’s mission is to build democracy through citizen service, civic leadership and social entrepreneurship. It is through service that we can demonstrate the power and idealism of young people, engage citizens to benefit the common good, and develop young leaders of the next generation.

In the coming year something like 2,500 corps members will contribute a year of service in some 24 cities in the United States and another four cities internationally. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered a keynote address to this month’s City Year leadership summit in Washington that made it clear how important City Year’s goals are for the nation as a whole. Duncan describes this as the civil rights issue of our generation.

One thing that I find interesting about the evolution of City Year over the past ten years is the refinement of focus its leadership has effected with regard to the way in which the talents and energy of corps members are deployed. Michael Brown has proven to be a highly effective leader (as well as co-founder), and he has drawn a strong group of senior leaders around him. In the early years the focus was on the value of youth service, allowing young people to contribute to the improvement of their communities in a variety of ways. For the past eight years or so the organization has come to the realization that service by itself is not enough. The service activities of the willing need to be coordinated around projects that can have real, sustainable impact. We need an effective and attainable strategic plan of action for service.

Involvement in schools has always been part of the palette of youth service at City Year. But in the past six years or so the focus has sharpened to allow City Year organizations in various cities to make a measurable impact on a very serious problem, the high school dropout rate in many American cities. In many cities fewer than half of a given cohort actually graduate on time. This failure rate has serious costs, both for the individuals and their families, and for the communities in which they live. And this problem is strongly stratified by poverty and race.

City Year’s central leadership in Boston therefore partnered with Bob Balfanz, an education scholar at Johns Hopkins (link), in order to focus on a diagnosis of how high school completion could be increased for inner city young people. Here is how Balfanz puts the problem this way in a recent white paper (link):

As a result, in order to achieve the educational outcomes the nation needs, it must solve the poverty challenge. To do this, we need a deep understanding of how poverty impacts educational outcomes. Strong arguments can be made that the very reforms currently being championed at the federal and state level—a common core curriculum linked to college and career ready standards, improved teacher quality, and turning around the lowest performing schools—are essential to solving the poverty challenge.

The theory is a simple one. Balfanz argues, based on extensive educational data, that there are three indicators that are very strong predictors of a child’s eventually becoming a high school dropout, as early as the sixth grade. These indicators are attendance, behavior, and course success. Sixth graders who are deficient in any one of these indicators have a dramatically lessened likelihood of graduation from high school. Here is Balfanz again:

In order to overcome the poverty challenge, schools that serve high concentrations of low income students need to be able to provide direct, evidence-based supports that help students attend school regularly, act in a productive manner, believe they will succeed, overcome external obstacles, complete their coursework, and put forth the effort required to graduate college-and-career ready.

So now the agenda for City Year has now been focused more sharply. Teams of City Year corps members are placed in schools, including middle schools and high schools, and their time and effort are focused on bringing at-risk students up to par in each of these areas. They provide near-peer counseling, tutoring, behavior adjustment, and attendance support, and they often create very strong relationships with the students they help. A particularly focused program is in place in a select number of schools, called the Diplomas Now program. This is a cooperative relationship between City Year, Communities in Schools, and the Johns Hopkins educational researchers. And the assessment data for the schools is very encouraging. Dramatic improvements in the three areas of focus are measured across the country.

The aspiration of the City Year national organization has been to reach 50% of the at-risk students throughout urban America.

City Year’s In School and On Track initiative is designed to bring City Year corps members to 50% of all of the students falling off track in City Year’s 23 U.S. locations, which will require expanding the number of corps members to 6,000 and engaging school districts, the private sector and the federal government through AmeriCorps as partners.

This is a big goal. What is impressive is the fact that City Year is making real progress towards attaining this goal. (Here is a press release documenting recent progress.) And this is in turn a very powerful example of how a social justice organization can actually make serious progress on a pervasive social problem. It can contribute to a “Race to the Moon” effort to ensure a high school equation for all of America’s young people, and a decent foundation for a college education as well.

Here is a great animated video that City Year has produced to explain its current goals in addressing the dropout crisis.


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