Photo: City Year
College grads working for City Year help K-12 students in Florida
The city Year program leaves a big impact, both on students at struggling schools and on the volunteers who help them.
Miami resident Danielle Watkins, 24, graduated from Barry University in 2013 with a master’s degree in biomedical sciences but put off heading into the corporate world.
Instead, she decided to participate in the City Year program, a non-profit effort that engages young professionals like her to serve as tutors, mentors and role models for students in struggling schools. Watkins worked for a year as an algebra tutor at Miami Central Senior High School, which got a “D” last year from the Florida Department of Education.
Wearing a bright red City Year jacket, Watkins headed to school nearly an hour before it officially began each morning, lining up with other City Year corps members to greet students as they enter the building. During the day, Watkins typically tutored about 70 ninth-graders.
After school, she called the homes of the students who didn’t show up for school — an opportunity, she says, to show the students that someone cares, even if they don’t make it to school each day.
Watkins says the program “helped me to realize how great I Grew up and that I could give back to people who didn’t grow up the same way that I did.”
Gregory Bethune, the school’s principal, says City Year “has been a tremendous asset in terms of our academic performance, as well as the school spirit that the kids have.” City Year corps members “put a lot of their own personal aspirations on hold to come and serve the students in these schools that would probably not get some of the services that they provide if it had not been for City Year.”
In Florida, more than 300 City Year volunteers work in 17 schools in Miami, six schools in Orange County and five in Duval County.
Founded in 1988, the program operates under the umbrella of AmeriCorps, a national service initiative. Unlike AmeriCorps, which deals with a range of issues, including disaster relief, environmental cleanup and aiding military families and veterans, City Year focuses solely on education.
“Our corps members are specifically focused on tackling the education gap and having them be a super force in increasing student achievement,” says Saif Ishoof, 38, executive director of City Year Miami.
For funding, City Year relies on its parent organization and the school districts in which it operates. City Year also receives funds through corporate sponsorships and private donations. Bank of America, CSX and the Knight Foundation are among its sponsors. The organization has since spread to 25 cities around the country and also includes programs in the United Kingdom and South Africa.
In return for 1,700 hours of service, corps members receive a $5,400 AmeriCorps award, which they can use to pay college tuition or repay student loans. They also get a $265 (taxable) weekly stipend.
Watkins says she is planning to put her award toward more than $150,000 worth of student loan debt. “It’s not going to pay all of them, but it will help,” she laughs.
City Year pays dividends in another way, providing members an opportunity to build their skills before heading into the workforce, Ishoof says. “National service can be really a unique platform of bridging that divide between college grads and the workforce.”
Watkins, who is planning to attend medical school, says she got more than a little practice interacting with different types of people during her term. “With me, wanting to go to medical school and trying to see different types of patients, I’ll have to relay information differently to different people.”
Is hoof also believes that the program entices talented young professionals into pursuing their careers in Florida. “We can leverage national service as a talent magnet in getting amazing millennials to come into our state.”