2014-02-14

This piece appears in the February 2014 issue of Washington Lawyer, a publication by the D.C. Bar. Read the original article online.

Legal community, City Year join hands to help students succeed
By Thai Phi Le

On a normal weekday morning in Washington, D.C., people briskly walk through the city streets, heads buried in their phones or pointedly making their way to the office. But November 21 wasn’t a typical workday for some.

A couple of blocks from Jones Day, which sits on the corner of 3rd Street and New Jersey Avenue NW, people in red jackets started waving. The first time, you think nothing of it. Another block closer and the youths are smiling and saying hello. Now you’re a little thrown off. As you round the corner, the “Good mornings!” ring in the air. What is going on? It’s the second annual City Year Legal Community Breakfast, held at Jones Day.

Two Law Students and a Dorm Room
The idea for City Year was born in 1988 in the dorm room of two Harvard Law School students. “It was the belief that young people had a part to play in addressing some of the nation’s most challenging issues,” said Jeff Franco, vice president and executive director of City Year Washington, D.C.

The nonprofit’s mission is to help students stay in school by sending AmeriCorps members into public schools to serve as tutors, mentors, and role models alongside teachers. City Year is currently in 25 communities across the United States.

The Washington, D.C., location was founded in 2000 by Christopher Murphy, a former attorney at Hogan & Hartson LLP (now Hogan Lovells) and current chief of staff of D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray. Murphy was an original corps member in 1988 in Boston. He led City Year D.C. for eight years and sat on its board of directors. Today the local branch has 156 full-time corps members in 13 District schools.

A Bright Spot
Andrew Edghill, one of the corps members, works with students at Neval Thomas Elementary School in Northeast D.C. At the breakfast, he talked about his background: a mother from the projects in Jersey City and a father who immigrated to America at the age of 19 from Panama. Both grew up to have successful careers.

“The opportunities and the experience that I’ve had, I’m grateful for,” said Edghill. “I wanted to pay it forward after school. I thought City Year would probably be the best opportunity to do that.”

Speaking to those seated at his table, Edghill said his biggest challenge was realizing that the opportunities he was afforded as a child were not possible for many of the students he now mentors.

Hank Walther, a partner at Jones Day, reiterated the struggles that many District students face. “If you go a mile or two east of here, across the Anacostia River and into Ward 7 or 8, only about 40 percent of students in those public schools graduate from high school. You can all imagine the tremendous social and economic consequences that come with figures like this and that come with dropout rates that are this high,” he said. “But there are some bright spots, and City Year is one of the brightest spots in this story.”

According to statistics from the 2011–2012 academic year, 59 percent of District students in the sixth grade through ninth grade who were sliding off in attendance were back on track by the end of the year with the help of City Year corps members, nine out of 10 students agreed that City Year helped them believe they could succeed, and 95 percent of students in kindergarten through fifth grade who received literacy tutoring improved their literacy assessment scores, with 41 percent of those students improving by an entire proficiency level.

Kwame Simmons offered a personal success story from Kramer Middle School in Southeast D.C. where he is principal. “Maya was the kind of middle school student that people dread to see coming. This is an adolescent teenage girl, stir-crazy for boys, [and] defiant. Anytime you say or do anything against her predetermined plan, you had a fight on your hands,” he recalled.

Maya was beginning eighth grade when the school started its partnership with City Year. “There was this woman in a red jacket [the group’s trademark attire] who had this pristine kind of energy that mesmerized Maya in a way,” Simmons said. In a few months, Maya started to change. She is now vice president of her 10th grade class at McKinley Technology High School.

“The City Year corps members come to Kramer and they inspire. They get children who are 11, 12, and 13 years old to believe in themselves,” said Simmons. “When we have City Year corps members, they come in with this storm of positive energy. It’s impacting the entire building. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

Legal Roots Growing
The impact City Year has had on students in the District would not have been possible without the support of the local legal community. Since the days of the law school dorm, the organization’s roots have grown to include support from firms and attorneys around the nation’s capital.

The second Legal Community Breakfast drew 250 attorneys, garnered firm sponsorships, and raised more than $106,000 for the organization. Throughout the year firms donate space for staff and corps member training, serve on City Year’s Annual Gala and Legal Breakfast Host Committees, and mentor corps members interested in law school. In addition, six of the 18 board members of City Year D.C. are lawyers.

“It’s an example of something that attorneys can appreciate, which is if you don’t have the foundation to succeed in school, then the opportunities that a lot of us have had as attorneys to succeed later on in our careers really aren’t present for some of these kids,” said Wesley Heppler, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP who has worked with City Year for about two years. “This is a chance for attorneys to impact these kids very directly, either through financial support or through hands-on support to give them the foundation and help they need to get to the places where we’ve been fortunate enough to get.”

Read more about the Legal Community Breakfast and see photos from this year’s event.

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