It’s puzzling why some members of Congress are so keen to blot out AmeriCorps — the umbrella agency that helps to fund City Year, Teach for America, and other highly regarded programs. Vocal Republican critics, some of whom have tried to eliminate the program entirely, rightly demand quality, efficiency, and accountability. But that evidence is already right in front of them in the form of the thousands of graduates of highly competitive universities who opt to strengthen their communities and country through national service. Last year, 582,000 applicants of all ages competed for roughly 80,000 slots.
And national-service programs are increasingly providing desperately needed enrichment for schoolchildren, in Boston and elsewhere. At City Year, members of the national service team commit to an 11-hour workday at the nation’s toughest schools for a $12,000 annual stipend. Currently, City Year members are operating in 21 city schools. The recruits aren’t licensed educators, but they are contributing in major ways to the success of Boston students, especially in the schools designated by the state as in dire need of academic improvement.
Each morning, 265 City Year members in their signature red jackets offer enthusiastic greetings to students and staffers. But there is more than hoopla at play. If a student is absent, the City Year members immediately call his or her home with a reminder of the link between attendance and classroom success. Intensive tutoring by corps members has led to significant increases in the literacy skills of elementary school students, according to Boston school officials. And the reliable presence of City Year’s so-called “near peers’’ — young enough to relate to students’ anxieties, but mature enough to offer solid advice — is especially useful for students whose social environments are often unpredictable or dangerous.
City Year’s local operation benefitted enormously from a three-year pilot program funded by philanthropists Sherry and Alan Leventhal at the Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester. Corps members learned how to become useful practitioners at the hands of experienced administrators and teachers. Now those lessons are being passed on to more than 2,000 City Year members across the nation.
The struggle to extend the school day in Boston wasn’t resolved in the latest teachers’ contract. The city can’t afford to pay teachers to work additional hours at the contractual rate. But City Year members, as well as those from other nonprofits, such as Citizen Schools, are showing they can fill the afterschool hours with quality instruction and programs at a fraction of the cost. This may be the best answer we have for extending school days in poor school districts.
AmeriCorps members provide important services at a tiny fraction of the cost of full-time workers. The overall national-service budget, which stands at just over $1 billion, has been slashed by 8.8 percent over the past two years, and is targeted again in various budget plans. Congress should look elsewhere for savings.