By Michael Alison Chandler
The District is increasingly turning to another pool of labor to support its efforts to improve literacy, reduce dropout rates and turn around schools: AmeriCorps volunteers.
Twenty years after the national service program started, the $665 million federal program helps fund corps members in 1,500 organizations around the country. In the District, about 800 AmeriCorps volunteers are working in public schools — both traditional and charter — and in community organizations that support education.
The program has left a distinct imprint on the city’s schools through one of its most well-known partner organizations, Teach for America, which has 85 teachers working in the schools. D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and former chancellor Michelle Rhee are alumni, as is Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith.
Hundreds more AmeriCorps volunteers work in schools, youth centers or after-school programs providing tutoring or enrichment, often in exchange for small stipends, a $5,600 check toward student loans or future degrees, and an early career step.
“A lot of kids in low-income communities need all kinds of help,” said John Gomperts, president of America’s Promise Alliance and a former director of AmeriCorps. “To just make schools and teachers responsible when their jobs are already so challenging is often not going to get the job done.”
National service programs, including AmeriCorps, offer a low-cost way for schools to intensify their improvement efforts and connect students with more caring adults, he said. Such relationships have proved to be pivotal in getting teens who have difficult lives to finish high school.
City Year, an AmeriCorps program with a 15-year history in the District, is focusing efforts to improve graduation rates. The program has 158 volunteers working in 13 D.C. public schools, including some of the high schools with the highest dropout rates, as well as elementary and middle schools that feed into them.
Volunteers greet students in the morning and help in classrooms throughout the day, focusing on students who are having trouble with attendance or behavior and are at risk of dropping out. They run lunch programs and develop relationships over the year.
“They are close enough in age with students to be friends but old enough to be mentors and role models,” said Jeffrey Franco, vice president and executive director of City Year Washington, D.C.
The corps members wear uniforms, including khaki pants and a red jacket with an American flag on one sleeve and an AmeriCorps badge on the other. When in uniform, they must follow certain rules as role models: no jay walking or gum chewing or headphones, Franco said.
Jay Savoy, a 23-year-old City Year volunteer, remembers meeting someone wearing that red jacket who gave her some encouragement on a stressful day when she was a student at Stuart-Hobson Middle School in the District.
“This person didn’t know me from a can of paint,” she said. But the volunteer lifted her spirits and made a lasting impression.
After graduating from college, Savoy became a City Year corps member at Kimball Elementary School, three blocks from where she grew up. Last year, she worked in a classroom, helping the teacher and working with small groups or individual students. This year, she oversees a team of City Year classroom aides.
“With a class of 23 kids and one teacher, it’s hard to give the attention to the kids who don’t have motivation or don’t really understand,” she said.
Kelly Meany and Alysha Brown are AmeriCorps members with Reading Corps. The program trained them to work as reading tutors to work one-on-one with students in the early grades.
Meany, 23, said they spend 20 minutes a day with each student, focusing on those who are behind but who can slip through the cracks because they are not the most-struggling students, who already receive services from the school. Brown, 26, said they are working to help them catch up.
“If we can get a child . . . to read on grade level by third grade, they will have a much better chance at succeeding,” Brown said.