Every year, one million children drop out of school in the United States. That’s about one student every 26 seconds, a staggering number.

The average high school graduation rate in America’s 50 largest cities hovers around 50 percent. Only half of the students who start high school in big American cities finish in four years.

What’s more: the 50 percent of students who drop out come from only 12 percent of our nation’s high schools, so-called “dropout factories,” which disproportionately affect urban school districts and people of color.

A young person who drops out of school is 1.5 times more likely to be unemployed than a high school graduate, three times more likely to be unemployed than a college graduate, and eight times more likely to spend time in jail.

This is the civil rights crisis of our generation.

A National Crisis With Disastrous Local Consequences
In Philadelphia, Pa., the high school dropout problem is particularly acute. In the city — our nation’s sixth largest with a population of more than 1.5 million people — the on-time graduation rate is 64 percent. The six-year graduation rate improves slightly at 67 percent.

Today in Philadelphia, less than 35% of students score proficient in math and less than 45% score proficient in reading. On average, one out of four students entering ninth grade will not graduate.

While the situation is bleak, however, there are many reasons for optimism: the  problem is a solvable one. While reasons behind the city’s dropout crisis are complex, solutions are within our grasp.

Doing nothing simply isn’t an option.

City Year, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to tackling the dropout crisis in the nation, partners with schools and teachers to place trained young adults — who we call corps members — in schools where they’re needed most to provide individual support to students who need extra care and attention.

City Year Greater Philadelphia, which is one of 25 City Year member sites around the country (City Year sponsors two sites internationally, one in South Africa and one in England), connects young people ages 17 to 24  who have graduated high school or college and are contemplating the next steps along their life journey. For many of these young people, serving with City Year is an ideal opportunity not only to make a positive difference in the lives of students, but also to forge a clearer and more defined path to professional career exploration and growth. Through service and giving generously to others, City Year corps members discover who they are and what they seek to be in life. They emerge from City Year more determined, focused, and prepared to enter any career they choose.  

“City Year corps members are there for students every day, all day, year after year, providing individualized academic and developmental support to inspire young students to set high expectations and work hard to achieve their full potential,” said Ric Ramsey, executive director and vice president of City Year Greater Philadelphia. “What makes City Year especially unique is that our corps members are a human capital solution for teachers and students. Our corps members are incredibly smart, spirited, and socially conscious, and this ‘triple threat’ powerfully positions them to make a lasting and positive difference in the lives of many students in the city.”

Working side-by-side with teachers, our corps members use research-based tools and techniques to help students who are struggling — so more kids stay in school and on track to succeed.

What does “on track” mean?  It means reading and writing at appropriate grade levels. It means meeting key mathematical benchmarks. It means socially and emotionally developing in appropriate ways.

City Year corps members  know how to spot and respond to critical early warning signs that a student is at risk of dropping out—the “ABCs” of poor attendance, behavior, and course performance in math and reading. Failure to succeed in any one of these three areas increase the likelihood that a student will drop out of school.

Wearing their signature red jackets, corps members serving in teams arrive before the bell rings and stay until the last student goes home — helping to transform a school’s culture with passion, energy, and idealism.

At City Year, we believe that every child has the potential to succeed, but many face challenges in the classroom and at home that make it hard for them to stick with school. Research shows that struggling students can succeed with the right support at the right time, but teachers and schools don’t always have the time and resources to meet each student’s needs. City Year fills the gap with a unique, research-driven strategy proven to keep more students in school and on track to graduate.

As “near peers,”  City Year corps members are uniquely able to form close relationships with students who need extra care and attention. City Year corps members are closer in age to the young students we serve, and because of the closeness in age, quickly become role models. Chosen through a rigorous selection process, corps members give a year of their lives to help students succeed.

“Our corps members tutor students, serve as an additional resource for teachers in classrooms, and lead afterschool programs and school-wide initiatives to improve student achievement and school culture,” said Sang Hoon Lee, managing director of development at City Year Greater Philadelphia. “As near-peers, corps members are uniquely positioned to form a strong bond with students to help them succeed.”

Alexandra Agiliga, 22, from Maryland, is a proud corps member currently serving on the City Year team at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in North Philadelphia. In May 2013, Agiliga graduated from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where she double majored in Africana Studies and Psychology, and minored in Portuguese and Brazilian Studies.

“I was originally attracted to City Year because its ‘Whole School, Whole Child’ service is interactive and collaborative, ensuring that students who are struggling have resources and models of both academic success and community involvement,” Agiliga said. “I want to be part of this service to influence both educational and social environments. As a corps member, I am gaining invaluable experience in the school system, as well as with in-and-out of classroom time with students; these experiences undoubtedly will contribute to my intended career path.  My ultimate goal is to work with children who do not typically have access to counseling or mental and behavioral wellness resources—children of both ethno-racially and socioeconomically underrepresented groups,” she said.

Agiliga’s time in the classroom allows her to experience the power of small, or seemingly small victories. Their ripple effect, however, can be enormous.

“Working with students is challenging and has made me rethink the way I see success in my service school,” Agiliga said. “For example, on most days, many students turn in incomplete homework, and other students nonchalantly remark that they didn’t even do that day’s homework. Recently, I worked two students to complete their homework for the following day. This may seem like a small, unremarkable task, but it has the potential to positively affect the class at large. If the class sees two students, who do not usually do their work, consistently turn in completed assignments, overtime these actions could encourage other students in the class to be more engaged in their education and complete and hand in their work. What seems like an unremarkable event—helping two students complete their homework—can be considered a small success.”

When students don’t show up at school in the morning, corps members like Alexandra Agiliga call home and encourage them to come in. When students fall behind in class, corps members tutor them before, during, and after school so they can catch up. With City Year’s help, struggling schools have the extra people power needed to support the hundreds of students who need extra attention.

In addition, by addressing the needs of the whole child, City Year helps to transform the whole school. With the hands-on support they need to succeed, more students are ready, willing, and able to learn, which creates a more positive and productive learning environment for the whole school.

City Year’s targeted, research-driven strategy focuses on the schools and students who need help most. In Philadelphia, City Year works with struggling kids in grades 3 to 9, because they are much more likely to graduate if they reach 10th grade on track and on time.

City Year has ambitious plans, too: its 10-year strategy aims to help 80 percent of students in City Year schools reach 10th grade successfully—nearly double the current rate.

City Year’s mission is to build democracy through national service – to promote active citizenship as an essential ingredient of a strong and vibrant democracy.

Through a commitment to a cause greater than self, we reinforce the ideal of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” and strengthen the democracy that affords us these rights. When young people serve, they inspire others, and in doing so generate vast resources of civic capital for meeting the pressing needs of our country.

When young people choose to participate in City Year and all AmeriCorps programs, when they give back by helping neighbors rebuild their communities, and when they mentor underserved children to become future leaders, they experience a civic rite of passage that can define and inspire a lifetime of citizenship and build a stronger democracy.

National service could be the civics class of the 21st century, in which young people not only learn about the principles of freedom and democracy upon which this country was founded, but in which they are empowered to act upon those principles, fulfill their responsibilities as citizens, and work to ensure a more just society for all of us. The experience of serving full-time propels people to act.

Eager to learn more? Find City Year online at  www.cityyear.org, become a Facebook fan, or follow @CityYearPhilly on Twitter.


About City Year: City Year is an education-focused, nonprofit organization founded in 1988 that partners with public schools and teachers to help keep students in school and on track to succeed.  In 24 communities across the United States and through two international affiliates, this innovative public-private partnership brings together teams of young AmeriCorps members who commit to a year of full-time service in schools. Corps members provide individual support to students who need extra care and attention, focusing on attendance, behavior, and course performance through in-class tutoring, mentoring, and after-school programs.

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