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This month we honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In a national day of service, City Year AmeriCorps members will join thousands of volunteers in communities across the country, answering the question Dr. King once said was the most urgent and persistent in our lives: “What are you doing for others?”
I started City Year more than 20 years ago with my college roommate because we believed then, as we do now, that the tremendous civic power of young people can be harnessed to meet pressing community needs, while developing new leaders for the common good.
We called it “City Year” because we believed that young people should be challenged to dedicate themselves to a year of service, just as they are expected to complete a freshman, sophomore, junior and senior year of education.
We set about creating a national citizen service program that would inspire young adults, ages 17 to 24, to serve. We borrowed from the best practices of the Peace Corps, the private sector, the nonprofit and governmental communities, and the military, to create a culture of idealism and excellence for the City Year corps. We invited the private sector to be our founding partners, and they have been with us every step of the way.
From a pilot corps of 50 young idealists in Boston in 1988, today City Year is a national corps of 2,000 strong, serving in 21 U.S. cities — including City Year Washington, DC, founded by a lead investment from the Case Foundation — and through two international affiliates in Johannesburg and London.
All told, more than 15,000 City Year corps members have put on City Year’s red jacket. City Year served as a model for the federal AmeriCorps program, and today our corps members are all AmeriCorps members. This MLK Day, our 2,000 corps members will beautify school grounds, paint murals, and participate in a host of other activities to strengthen our schools and communities. This year, we’re proud that the Case Foundation staff will join City Year Washington, DC for a service day at Dunbar High School.
City Year serves where the need is greatest — and we believe no need is greater than addressing our nation’s very serious dropout crisis. Every 26 seconds another student gives up on school in America, resulting in more than 1,000,000 dropouts every year — a fast track to the underclass.
The Case Foundation understands that schools need more human capital to implement the types of reforms we know can make a difference — expanding the learning day, providing one-on-one and small group instruction to students who are behind, using data to inform instruction, and establishing a culture of high expectations.
That’s what City Year provides — more human capital and a game-changing resource for high poverty schools.
Dr. King once said, “Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of a true education.” From before the first bell until the last student leaves our afterschool program at dusk, our professionally trained, high energy team of City Year AmeriCorps members serve as full-time tutors, mentors and role models, helping to lift up the students in our communities. In partnership with many others, corps members are implementing the evidence-based, targeted interventions that help keep students in school and on track to graduate.
Our corps members work toimprove students’ attendance, behavior, and course performance — the early warning indicators that research has demonstrated can predict which students are likely to drop out. With our Diplomas Now partners we are seeing exciting results: cutting chronic absenteeism and behavior problems in half, and reducing the number of students failing math or English by as much as 80 percent.
In 2009, in partnership with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, City Year announced In School & On Track: A National Challenge. Our goal is to serve a majority of off-track students in every community we serve.
With the longstanding support of the Case Foundation, we are humbled and honored to give young people an opportunity to serve — to honor Dr. King’s legacy, and make a big difference — in schools in Washington, DC and across the country.
Michael Brown is Co-Founder and CEO of City Year.