Across the nation, one million students drop out of school each year, and half of those dropouts come from just 10 percent of schools. City Year, an education-focused nonprofit, seeks to challenge the status quo by dramatically increasing the graduation rate and transforming the future for thousands of students in America. City Year partners with public schools in the communities it serves to keep high-risk students in school and on track to graduate and succeed.
Founded in Boston in 1988 by Michael Brown and Alan Khazei, City Year currently deploys 2,700 corps members in 25 U.S. cities, as well as in Johannesburg, South Africa and London, England. Michael and Alan, then-roommates at Harvard Law School, felt strongly that young people in service could be a powerful resource for addressing America’s most pressing issues, and they built City Year with the conviction that one person has the ability to make a difference.
Funded by AmeriCorps, school districts, philanthropies and individuals, City Year recruits diverse teams to spend a year of full-time service in schools serving as tutors, mentors and role models for students who are at the greatest risk of dropping out. Since its inception, City Year has promoted the vision of service as a common expectation – and a real opportunity – for citizens all around the world.
City Year Columbia is the organization’s second oldest site, founded in the summer of 1993, serving third through ninth grade students in Richland One and Lexington Four school districts.
After graduating from the University of South Carolina, where she served as student body president, Marie Louise “ML” Ramsdale attended Harvard Law School and was inspired by the idealistic City Year corps members serving their community.
“Seeing a diverse group of young people excited about dedicating a year to community service while learning critical life skills inspired me to bring this program back to Columbia. I believed that this program would not only make a difference in the lives of corps members, but it could also create positive change for the people they served and the greater Columbia community,” ML says.
Inspired by her passion and determination, Michael and Alan changed their original intention of keeping City Year as a single site program and founded City Year Columbia in the summer of 1993 with ML at its helm. It has since grown to 27 global locations, and City Year Columbia has provided more than 900,000 hours of service to Columbia.
City Year Columbia places corps members in five public schools in Richland and Lexington counties. They implement City Year’s “Whole School Whole Child” model, serving as additional resources for teachers in classrooms and leading afterschool programs and school-wide initiatives to improve student achievement and school culture. Teams of corps members work specifically with off-track third through ninth grade students who demonstrate the Johns Hopkins University research-based Early Warning Indicators of dropping out of school. These indicators are considered the ABCs: Attendance, Behavior and Coursework in Math and English.
Sabrina Plummer of Amelia, Va., spent this past year serving with City Year Columbia at WA Perry Middle School with eighth grade students. “I began working with a young man who had some serious personal struggles and had no interest in his school work. On tests, he scored the lowest in the class, and sometimes he even scored a zero. One thing remained consistent, though: he never missed a day of school. I made it my goal to interact with him as often as possible. In that time, he transformed from a student who was failing into a shining star,” she says. “He increased his scores and even earned the highest grade in his class in math. He has become a well-rounded student, and his hunger to become successful is what has really changed. I am proud that I was able to serve such an amazing student who simply needed an extra push.”
Corps members are in schools four and a half days a week, usually arriving at 7 a.m. and staying until 5:30 p.m., and they spend half a day a week in professional development. Throughout the school day, corps members provide targeted one-on-one or small-group tutoring to off-track students on their focus lists, as well as classroom support for teachers. They track the progress of their students weekly and meet with teachers to confidentially discuss the data and issues for each student and design individualized strategies. Volunteers also meet regularly with the City Year Impact Team to discuss data and plan for future tutoring sessions to ensure maximum impact.
Corps members also lead academic enrichment afterschool programs and coordinate and execute school events. Afterschool programs include homework help sessions, work with art, computers, sports and others. Members contribute to school events such as family literacy nights, family holiday events, report card conferences and community events like Lights on Afterschool, Reading Rocks and college fairs.
Alice Curtin Thaxton’s role as City Year Columbia Impact Director is to ensure quality data-driven service to the schools serviced by City Year. She started her career in education as a New York City Teach for America 2007 Corps Member and then taught elementary school for four years at Achievement First before joining City Year Columbia in July 2011. She works with Gail Wilson-Giarratano, PhD, who joined City Year Columbia in March 2012 as executive director and vice president.
“We researched based programs to train corps members and give feedback on their tutoring through observations,” says Alice Curtin. “Through setting rigorous goals, collecting student data, working with teachers to create plans and assessing results for next steps, we achieve a positive impact.”
Richland One Superintendent Dr. Percy Mack says principals and school administration agree that City Year Columbia has helped to strengthen students’ academic performances. “Our teachers report that City Year Columbia corps members foster a positive environment for learning,” he says. “We know they are making a difference.”
Alice Curtin says her favorite part of her job is seeing students’ faces when they have “Aha” moments. “There is nothing better than a student getting excited about learning. Our corps members experience this moment daily, and it reminds them why they joined City Year Columbia,” she says.
Gail admits the hardest part can be balancing the growth goals of the program without becoming overwhelmed at the incredible need demonstrated in the Midlands. “But every day we’re inspired to see students who’ve struggled with school improve their attendance, demonstrate they can behave well in the classroom and ultimately improve their course work,” she says. “We also love it when corps members choose to continue working in education after their year of service. We know these are bright capable leaders who are helping to build a strong teacher pipeline.”
Jim Irvin, president of City Year Columbia’s board, says, “Our goal is to serve more students and ensure they have the tools to reach their full potential with the long term goal of scaling the program to serve at least 50 percent of off-track students. In order to do this, corps members and staff need to continue to demonstrate a positive impact in schools where they currently serve and strive to gain support from the local community and local business partners.”
Community support of City Year Columbia is far more than checkbook philanthropy, according to Gail. It helps corps members put their idealism to work by tutoring and mentoring school children, reclaiming public spaces and organizing afterschool programs in the Columbia area.
City Year was founded with a vision of active corporate citizenship and was launched entirely by private sector funds. It operates as a 501c3 nonprofit and has a local advisory board of 18 committed community members. Charity Navigator, America’s premier charity evaluator, has given City Year its highest rating every year since 2003. “This certifies City Year’s commitment to accountability, transparency and responsible fiscal management. Only one percent of charities have received this distinction for eight consecutive years, placing City Year among the most trustworthy charities in America,” says Charlotte Berry, City Year Columbia board member and local philanthropist. “I am proud to serve on the board. City Year Columbia makes a difference in our community.”
For more information, contact City Year Columbia at (803) 254-3349 or visit www.cityyear.org/columbia.