By: Rebecca Saltman Issue: Vision Section: Community
Impacting the National Dropout Crisis One Student at a Time
A little over two years ago business and community leaders from around metro Denver began raising the question of whether the organization garnering so much praise across the country—City Year—could address some of the issues confronting students in Denver Public Schools. Inquiries were made to the City Year headquarters in Boston to see what would be needed to cultivate a location in Denver. As local leaders joined the conversation, support increased, and the wheels started turning. However, attracting the forces for change took much more than a few conversations. It took great leadership, collaboration across multiple sectors, and a shared vision to make it a reality.
City Year is a nationwide nonprofit organization founded by Michael Brown, who still serves as CEO, and Alan Khazei whose mission is focused specifically on the high school dropout crisis. With 23 locations across the United States, as well as affiliates in London and Johannesburg, the organization has a tremendous reputation of success. The model identifies young leaders ages 17-24, called Corps Members, and leverages their talent, energy, and idealism to serve full-time in teams at local schools as tutors, mentors, and role models.
There are over 2,000 Corps Members across the country serving thousands of children and youth in urban school settings. These young leaders deliver targeted and school-wide interventions in literacy, math, attendance, and behavior, as well as providing support for after school programming. This intervention strategy targets third through ninth graders, providing consistent support to students throughout the entire school year. Corps Members serve high schools and the "feeder" elementary and middle schools generating the most dropouts.
Recent metrics compiled by program administrators revealed that 90 percent of all students tutored by City Year in 2010 improved raw literacy scores. Perhaps not so surprisingly, there was also a 55 percent reduction in the number of students with less than 90 percent attendance as a result of programmatic attendance support activities. These numbers are just samples of the impact that is being made across the country. In the Denver metro area, leaders had a shared vision to actively address the dropout crisis in Denver Public Schools—its hallmark was the 51.8 percent graduation rate.
The founding committee for City Year Denver was comprised of Ben Walton (Walton Family Foundation), Christine Benero (Mile High United Way), Scott Binder (formerly of Comcast), Barry Curtiss-Lusher (Bay Philanthropic Fund), Vanecia B. Kerr (formerly of TIAA-CREF), Nina Lopez (Colorado Department of Education), Jacqueline Lundquist (1874 Chairperson at Colorado College), Melanie Melcher (Colorado State Land Board) and Colorado State House Representative Joe Miklosi. These individuals, under the leadership of Ben Walton's initial $1million Challenge Grant, worked to provide leadership with introductions to key political, business, and civic influencers in Denver's cityscape. The idea was to develop a collaborative team from the government, education, and private sectors, who also wanted to improve education for Denver students.
This concept of collaboration was not new to those involved in the startup of City Year Denver. In fact, the entire organization operates as a collaborative model between multiple sectors. City Year, as an AmeriCorps organization, receives a portion of their financial support from the federal budget that spurs general volunteerism. Additionally, City Year partners with school districts and enthusiastic private sector resources, all of whom are valued partners in the success of the program.
One of the founding committee members, Vanecia Kerr, was instrumental in helping organize the initial meeting with Superintendent Tom Boasberg and members of his leadership team. Kerr attended this meeting with leaders from City Year to demonstrate that the business community was also interested in working with Denver Public Schools to address the issues.
After 18 months of planning, including intensive efforts to raise the necessary initial investments to match the $1 million challenge grant from the Walton Family Foundation, the implementation of a City Year Denver site received a favorable vote from the National Board of Trustees in January 2011. The founding committee was excited and Denver Public Schools immediately started planning to have its own Corps Members deployed in local schools by the fall of 2011.
In preparation for the new site, there was much work to do. A startup team was quickly identified and began hiring the initial 50 Corps Members. Marc Morgan, the startup director for Denver, had a rich history with the organization and was a great fit for the growth of the Denver work. He had worked his way up through the organization, serving in various roles at City Year Greater Philadelphia and City Year Boston. Because of his background, Morgan was instrumental in laying the groundwork for a full deployment in a few short months—one of the fastest startups in the history of the organization.
With less than two fiscal quarters to create a startup team and full time staff, City Year continued their partnership with Denver Public Schools (DPS) to outline where the work was needed the most. Five schools within the DPS system were targeted including Lake Middle School, North High School, Rachel B. Noel Middle School, Montebello High School, and the Denver Center for 21st Century Learning. Each of these schools would have "feet in the street" a team of Corps Members dedicated to serving their students.
By July 2011, the team was in place. Not only did City Year successfully partner with Denver Public Schools to establish the program, but a full-time team was selected to coordinate this effort. Jeff Park was identified as the executive director based upon his experience as a teacher, principal and leader of several nonprofit organizations in the past. Vanecia Kerr was selected as the managing director for external responsibilities overseeing marketing, intra-organization communications, and program development. Marc Morgan was also identified to continue in a leadership role for the site as the managing director overseeing the program and service efforts. The mission is clear—keep students in school and on track to graduate.
Every 26 seconds a student quits school in America. We know that high school dropouts are three times more likely than college graduates to be unemployed and eight times more likely to be incarcerated than high school graduates. We also know that barely 50 percent of all African American students and less than 66 percent of Hispanic students will graduate with their class. With more than 12 million students projected to drop out over the next decade, it is estimated to cost the nation more than $3 trillion. And, thanks to the breakthrough research by Johns Hopkins, we also know who these students are as early as the sixth grade. So if we know who they are, City Year believes they can put the resources behind them to ensure they stay in school and on track and change the nation’s educational structure, one student at a time.
As for Denver, the City Year program is growing. They now have 50 Corps Members working 10-12 hour days with 500-700 students each day. The initial results are showing more consistent attendance and broader acceptance of school culture. With their red jackets and khaki pants, Corps Members have developed relationships with students that defy easy classification. Some students say that if it wasn’t for their City Year Corps Member they wouldn’t even be in school. It’s a fact, there is a special synergy in these peer relationships that transforms the students on a daily basis.
Going forward, City Year Denver is expected to expand beyond the initial five schools. But to reach the enormous amounts of students who are not on-track to graduate, the organization will need nearly 300 total Corps Members. Plans to generate the funding necessary in support of this goal are moving forward.
“Now that I’ve transitioned from the founding committee for City Year Denver to managing director, I have been able to see the full cycle of the startup process. When we first met with Superintendent Tom Boasberg, he expressed enthusiasm and a sincere willingness to partner with City Year to ensure the best possible outcome for the students. This commitment has continued through today and has now involved multiple leaders within DPS, partners in the nonprofit community and a growing list of support from companies like Comcast, Xcel Energy, and EnCana. We are so thankful for Ben Walton and the Walton Family Foundation, along with the Daniels Fund and the Anschutz Foundation who have all provided the initial investment to start City Year Denver. It is the collaboration from multiple sectors of our community that continues to fuel the success of our organization and ultimately the success of our students,” said Vanecia Kerr.
At City Year they believe that by engaging school districts, the private sector and the federal government through AmeriCorps, they can change the trajectory of students in America. In fact, they already are.
If you would like to support City Year Denver, please contact Vanecia B. Kerr at email@example.com or 720-308-7475. For more information on City Year, please visit their website at www.cityyear.org.
Rebecca Saltman is a social entrepreneur and the president and founder of an independent collaboration building firm designed to bridge business, government, nonprofits and academia. To learn more visit www.foot-in-door.com.