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After 25 years, City Year has grown

From the left, City Year members Robin Tucker, Zak Kephart, Alex Hallenbeck, and Danielle West prepared to greet students outside the Condon School in South Boston.
Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff
From the left, City Year members Robin Tucker, Zak Kephart, Alex Hallenbeck, and Danielle West prepared to greet students outside the Condon School in South Boston.

At 8:15 a.m., buses pull up outside the James Condon Elementary School in South Boston. Fourteen City Year members, dressed in bright red jackets, khaki pants, and white shirts, form two lines outside the school’s entrance. As kids file past, corps members break into rhythmic clapping, exhorting the youngsters to “Get loose!” and “Get moving!” as another day kicks off at the city’s largest elementary school.

Minutes later, City Year volunteer Shaina Benoit, 24, seats herself in a third-grade classroom and begins reviewing students’ homework. She will pay close attention to those struggling with academic or behavioral issues during the school year, and the rapport she’s built has already led to improved test scores in areas like language skills.

“They look forward to spending that extra one-on-one classroom time with us,” she said. “We care about them, and the students pick up on that.”

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Twenty-five years after its founding in Boston, City Year has come a long way from its modest origins as an all-purpose community-service program helping underprivileged urban neighborhoods.

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Now deeply engaged in public education, both in Boston and in 24 other US cities (plus two more overseas), City Year oversees a $100 million operating budget, double what it was six years ago, and fields four applicants for each available slot, more of whom than ever have college degrees or higher, according to City Year officials.

Since 2007, the program has also expanded from 17 cities to 25 and from 1,200 corps members to 2,700. During the 2013-14 academic year, City Year volunteers are serving in 250 schools from the Northeast to Silicon Valley.

City Year 2.0, as some call it, refines the original model to directly address the dropout problem in America’s most troubled urban schools.

With 12 percent of all US high schools accounting for 50 percent of the nation’s dropouts, early intervention, before students reach the 10th grade, is crucial to boosting graduation rates, say City Year officials who’ve studied the problem. The program they’ve developed, known as Whole School Whole Child, focuses on students in grades 3 to 9 who exhibit math, literacy, attendance, and behavior problems: four leading indicators of school-related troubles down the road. It was first fully implemented in 2007.

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Boston has the third-largest City Year contingent, trailing only New York City and Los Angeles. Its 265 recruits work in 20 city schools where early intervention is considered crucial. Last year, four Boston public schools served by City Year volunteers were moved off the state’s list of lowest-performing schools, one measure of the program’s impact locally. Program leaders have set a larger goal of being in 38 US cities by 2023, reaching 900,000 students in 1,000 urban schools that account for two-thirds of America’s urban dropouts.

Michael Brown, City Year cofounder.

“We’ve sharpened our focus because a high-quality education for all is essential to realizing the promise of American democracy,” says City Year cofounder and CEO Michael Brown.

Having young adults serve as tutors and role models for at-risk kids “can play a game-changing role for struggling students and under-resourced schools,” he adds. “Simply put, we are harnessing the idealism of America’s young people to help students and schools succeed.”

‘Jackets and jumping jacks’

When Brown and his Harvard Law School roommate Alan Khazei founded City Year, they hoped it would spark a national youth-service movement reminiscent of the Peace Corps. During its first full year, 1988-89, 50 young men and women ages 17 to 24 signed up to serve. Early supporters included Senator Edward Kennedy, President-elect Bill Clinton, and future presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a onetime board member.

Many public officials and education leaders have come to regard City Year as a model of what national service can and should be. Two decades ago, it inspired the creation of AmeriCorps, a federally funded network of nonprofits with more than 80,000 volunteers working in education, health care, and other fields related to public service.

Toni Schwarzenbach Burke, San Jose, Calif., City Year.
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Until 2007, however, City Year largely followed its original blueprint. Corps members cleaned up parks, painted and repaired housing project facilities, volunteered at senior centers, and worked on other civic-minded projects. They also worked in local schools but not exclusively so. In return, they received a modest weekly stipend and college tuition money, as they do today.

‘We’ve sharpened our focus because a high-quality education for all is essential to realizing the promise of American democracy.’

Around Boston, where corps members could be spotted doing calisthenics in City Hall Plaza, City Year became known for its unique culture of “jackets and jumping jacks,” as some still call it.

By 2005, as City Year continued to expand nationally, program officials asked themselves what impact they were having that was truly life-changing — for both those doing the year of service and those being served.

Aiming to standardize its service function from city to city, so that corps members could have the most measurable impact possible, City Year consulted with education researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. A two-year strategic planning process convinced program officials to concentrate on the high-school dropout rate.

“Clearly, preventing the dropout crisis from worsening is important to the country’s long-term well-being,” says City Year board chair Jonathan Lavine, chief investment officer for Sankaty Advisors. “City Year does a good job of reevaluating itself and has always had a double bottom line: that the service it performs is valuable, and that the opportunity to perform it is life-changing.”

Todd Tuney, Columbus, Ohio, City Year.

New mission, new growth

With the recent change to a more school-centric focus has come growth on a scale not foreseen 25 years ago.

Headquartered in Boston, in sprawling offices on Columbus Avenue, City Year is now generously funded through five major sources: AmeriCorps (25 percent), foundations (25 percent), corporations (18 percent), school districts and local governments (20 percent), and individuals (12 percent).

Those enlisted in City Year understand that much will be demanded of them, physically and otherwise. For members like Benoit, a typical day might begin at 7:30 a.m. and not end until 6:30 p.m. or later.

At school, they take attendance and phone home to check on absent students; look over homework; serve as classroom tutors, under the guidance of the teaching staff; help supervise after-school programs and plan special events; and, meet regularly as a group to review what’s working and what isn’t. On weekends, many voluntarily participate in projects — cleanups, painting, etc. — at the schools where they serve.

“A lot of the work is about meeting students where they are,” says Eric Howell, 25, a Penn State University graduate who’s back for a second City Year rotation, serving as a team leader at the Condon School. Improving students’ grades and test scores isn’t necessarily the main goal, he says. Rather, it’s “changing how they think about school, about their confidence and abilities. Their mind-set.”

Sandra Burke, Boston City Year.

Program advocates like Ross Wilson, assistant superintendent of Boston Public Schools’ office of human capital, says City Year’s involvement, preceded by more than a year of discussion with Boston school officials, has made a “profound impact.”

“It was a fundamental shift you could feel immediately,” says Wilson, who as principal of Roslindale’s Haley Pilot School saw City Year’s work up close. “Pretty soon, schools were clamoring for City Year. And they continue to.”

According to the most recent figures released by Boston Public School officials, the high-school dropout rate fell from 9.4 to 6.4 percent between 2005-06 and 2011-12. The city’s four-year graduation rate, meanwhile, reached a record high of 64.4 percent.

Condon School principal Ann Garofalo says corps members’ personal commitment has motivated her students “to want to be in school,” a key attitudinal change.

Erica Hamilton, New York City Year.

“Team members are role models for many students who may not have an adult in their lives advocating for them to be ‘college bound,’ ” Garofalo notes.

US education secretary Arne Duncan, in an e-mail to the Globe, calls the program’s efforts “invaluable” in keeping at-risk students on track to graduate.

“City Year’s service projects, tutoring, and early intervention efforts are both a great example of public service,” writes Duncan, who got to know City Year as head of Chicago’s public school system, “as well as the need for public service to be evidence-based” on what actually works.

Earlier this fall, City Year directors from around the US met at program headquarters to share stories and strategies. Several talked with a reporter about their own cities and school programs.

Todd Tuney, who runs the Columbus, Ohio, City Year office, said the shift in focus has inspired many more corps members to rethink their careers, creating a“workforce development pipeline for future teachers.”

Locally, said Boston executive director Sandra Lopez Burke, it took months of meeting with school officials, principals, and teachers for everyone to feel comfortable with City Year’s plan.

“For us, continuity was the key,’ says Burke, adding, “At a school like Condon, they continually ask how can we help, knowing we have corps members ready” to do so.

As City Year has grown, Brown says, the unifying thread remains young peoples’ idealism.

“They want meaning, adventure, and challenge in their lives, something bigger than themselves,” he says. “When you can harness that, the results are amazing.”

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.