It’s only 8 a.m., but my calves are already on fire. Sun lights the apartments lining the streets of Mattapan, Mass., a suburb of Boston. My backpack jostles on my shoulder. I feel the beat of my heart beneath the tucked-in shirt I’m trying not to get sticky with sweat, and slog slowly up the hill toward one of the most credible organizations in U.S. education.
On average, a public school student drops out of high school every 26 seconds—a nationwide education crisis founded in bad habits that take root in students’ formative years. The dropout rate and lack of quality education are pandemics in the United States. Students who fail either English or mathematics, exhibit poor behavior, or are habitually absent by sixth grade are 75 percent less likely to acquire a secondary education degree, and are eight times more likely than their peers to end up in prison. Minorities, particularly African Americans and Hispanics, are disproportionately represented in these statistics. For a nation that relied on the education of its workforce to achieve global economic success throughout the 20th century, this trend should be particularly worrisome for those looking ahead to the remainder of the 21st.
During the 2012-2013 academic year, after deferring my admission to Georgetown, I served with City Year, a non-profit organization operating through AmeriCorps. Founded in Boston in 1988, City Year operates sites in 25 cities across the country as well as London, England and Johannesburg, South Africa. Corps members are typically college graduates or people taking gap years. In the course of our service, my teammates and I regularly pulled 12-hour days manning morning- and after-school programs, tutoring fourth- and seventh-graders in English literacy, assisting teachers with classroom lesson plans, mentoring students about their behavior, planning school-wide events, and working to improve students’ attendance.
City Year derives its validity—and its necessity—from the positive impact its members have on the students in the most chronically underperforming schools in our country. By focusing its service primarily in third- through eighth-grade classrooms, the program addresses those factors that increase the likelihood that a student will fail to acquire a secondary education degree. In doing so, it provides one of the most effective models of education our nation has available.
City Year’s methodology has already helped ameliorate the issues that confront our nation’s education system. In Boston alone, students from schools in which City Year corps members served last year saw unprecedented improvement in their standardized test scores, which, for better or worse, are the metric by which school performance is measured. The organization has been nationally recognized as a leader in the movement to improve the nation’s educational standards by the likes of President Obama, Stanley McChrystal, Barbara Bush, and Jon Hamm.
Perhaps most significant, however, is the impact City Year’s system has on the students themselves, many of whom come from single-parent households, are minorities, and experience disproportionately fewer educational opportunities in their communities. For me, the relationships I made with my students were mutually beneficial. My students’ energy revitalized my interest in becoming a student again after high school and provided emotional depth to our interactions. City Year’s mandate to provide students with additional adults in the classroom who serve as role models, give advice, generate enthusiasm for education, and empathize with students’ daily struggles provides a critically needed human element in contrast to standardization, testing, and rote learning.
The ability to engage with issues that have a clear and immediate impact on our nation should serve as a call to action for college students who intend to grapple with the macrocosmic challenges that confront our world in their future endeavors. City Year’s focus on education should make it equally attractive to those looking to pursue a career in the field and those who aren’t. In the case of our nation’s educational future, everyone has a stake.
City Year is an example of what our educational system could be. While it has benefitted many students and school systems across the nation and the world already, it has yet to be taken seriously as a legitimate model for our educational system. Georgetown students with their educational credentials and social consciousness are the ideal candidates to serve as the next generation of City Year corps members, whether they do so prior to matriculation or after their graduation ceremonies. The opportunity to acquire skills useful to both an academic and professional career, while simultaneously rendering a desperately needed service to the country, proves that a year “off” doesn’t have to be anything of the sort.