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There’s more to life than grad school and getting a job

Every 26 seconds, a student drops out of high school. According to Robyn Lorfi nk, operations director for City Year Orlando, this statistic means that 1 million students in the United States give up on their education each year. While many middle and high school kids are struggling to stay in school, many high school and college graduates are grappling with a different challenge after graduation:

What now?

AmeriCorps is a federally funded organization that serves as an umbrella to many national service-based organizations and agencies across the United States. The organization covers a wide range of intensive community-service programs each year, all of which address a community’s critical needs in education, public safety and environmental health. City Year is one of these organizations. On its website, City Year explains that its main initiative is to keep students in school and on track for graduation. The organization bases much of its programming on the outcome of a study that was done by Johns Hopkins University in 2005. The results of this study show that there are early warning indicators that can identify whether students are likely to drop out of school. City Year refers to these warning signs as the ABCs, an acronym for poor Attendance, disruptive Behavior and Course failure in math and English. Once students exhibiting these behaviors have been identifi ed, they are given special attention by various City Year corps members whose goals are to help these students turn their behaviors around and guide them to a successful graduation path.

“We greet students as they arrive in school,” Lorfi nk said. “We do phone calls home when students are missing. Our biggest behavior initiative is called ‘behavior luncheon,’ which is when we take students who need that little extra bit of encouragement to behave appropriately in school and we assign them a peer mentor, another student who is behaving the correct way. They have lunch with a corps member and we talk about what it means to be a leader in a school and what it means to act appropriately and positively.”

In Orlando alone, there are 60 AmeriCorps members working with six Orange County public schools. Once stationed, corps members stay in one school to work for one year.

“I was a City Year corps member in 2004-05 in Philadelphia, and I was a hospitality management major,” Lorfi nk said. “The biggest thing that I got out of it was project and event planning. I put on parent engagement nights and service projects, so you get that aspect of handson event planning, whereas someone who is interested in education obviously can see the alignment there. But someone who is interested in public administration or government will get to see how elected offi cials interact with our program and what education policies are and what students need. So there is an alignment with any major, and you can fi nd your niche in service.”

Lisa Marotta, a City Year corps member originally from Maine, now works at Oak Ridge High School in Orlando, where 93 percent of the student population is on food stamps. Marotta tutors ninth-grade intensive math. The hospitality management and leadership dual major fi rst heard about City Year when she was working as a resident assistant two years ago. Her interest was sparked when she was told by a close friend that she was a good leader and she would do well in the program. “I could go on forever about how rewarding the program is,” Marotta said. “I am creating lifelong friendships. I have students running up to me to show me their report cards, showing me the difference I’m making in their lives. I’ve learned time management and life skills and have gained so much confi dence. If you have any passion about helping others at all, don’t hesitate. Don’t get scared. It’s challenging but rewarding. It’s also an awesome transition if you’re not sure what you want to do with your life, whether it is more school or a profession.”

City Year’s long-term goal is to ensure that 80 percent of students in the schools with which it works reach 10th grade on track and on time. The organization is located in 25 cities throughout the United States, three of them in Florida (Orlando, Jacksonville and Miami), and three locations internationally (one in South Africa and two in England). A third of the organization’s funding comes from AmeriCorps. Because it is federally funded by AmeriCorps, City Year is able to call its workers volunteers instead of employees. These volunteers must have at least a high-school diploma, be able to dedicate 10 months to service, and be between the ages of 17 and 24. Volunteers also must be U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents and agree to background and security checks.

“The more tangible benefi ts are that they get a biweekly living stipend, they get free health insurance, and at the end of their yearlong commitment they get an education award that is equal to the Pell Grant that they can use toward paying back student loans or continuing their education,” Lorfi nk said. “In addition to that, City Year has gone out and partnered with almost 100 universities and colleges that provide anywhere between 25 and 100 percent of graduate-school tuition to those who have done a year with City Year. And then there are more intangible benefi ts, such as becoming a better public speaker, learning issues that are affecting your community, impacting the life of a child, learning about project planning and working on a diverse team.” Abigail Beham, a 22-year-old graduate from Ohio with a degree in architecture, learned about City Year from a booth at a career fair. “I knew I wanted a different fi eld for grad school, but I was afraid to commit,” Beham said. “So I thought City Year would be great because I could see how I’d work in a school. I’m excited to work in education, and it’s good to get into service.”

Beham plans attendance initiatives for students who have had issues showing up to their classes in the past. She organizes and plans after school programs that help with homework and create fun alternatives for students who might otherwise get involved in harmful behaviors. However, there are challenges to the job. Beham admits that the hours can seem long at times and that change is not always something that is immediately detected. Sometimes the students don’t want help, which can be discouraging.

Nineteen-year-old Alexy Santos joined City Year because he wanted to be a part of something that would enact positive change in the world as well as help him gain work experience. Because he could not decide on a major, he decided to take a year off from school. He fi rst heard about AmeriCorps and City Year through a friend when he was working as a camp counselor in Massachusetts.

“I thought, ‘This could be incredible!’” Santos said. “I went online and did some research and was completely inspired.”

Santos has been an active corps member for about six months. He is already thinking about signing up for another year of service. “I love the work I’m doing,” Santos said. “I don’t necessarily want to become a teacher, but I’ve learned so much through this program. I’ve realized how key it is for young adults to infl uence the younger generation. Teachers can’t always relate, but because we are closer to their age, we get them.”

Santos plans to return to college after he fi nishes his time with City Year. He thinks he might major in psychology or business. He believes that he will bring the experience he has gained through City Year into his future careers.

“I’m ecstatic about what the future holds,” Santos said. “Yes, the pay is low, but the experience is rich. I serve to ignite fl ames of social justice, and I feel like I am making a change. It’s a chain reaction and you have to ask yourself, how much would an experience like that mean to you? For me, it’s everything.”

Other programs City Year is not the only program offered for young adults interested in dedicating their time to service. AmeriCorps also offers three of its own programs: VISTA, NCCC and FEMA Corps.

The AmeriCorps website describes VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) as a program where “members make a year-long, full-time commitment to serve on a specifi c project at a nonprofi t organization or public agency. They focus their efforts to build the organizational, administrative and fi nancial capacity of organizations that fi ght illiteracy, improve health services, foster economic development and otherwise assist low-income communities.”

AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) works with communities through team-based national and community service. These members partner with nonprofi ts, including secular and faithbased, local municipalities, state governments, federal government, national and state parks, Indian tribes and schools. Members complete service projects throughout the region to which they are assigned. The program is travel-based, relocating corps members every two to eight weeks for a different service project.

FEMA Corps is solely devoted to disaster preparedness, response and recovery. Interested applicants should peruse the AmeriCorps website to fi nd out what other programs and opportunities are available to them. Interested students can apply to City Year in one of three ways. “Students can apply directly for a site, and can say, ‘I want to serve in Orlando,’ which we would love, or they could say they want to work somewhere in Florida, or just where members are most needed,” Lorfi nk said. “Usually people do get their request unless they get put on the waitlist, and at that point, they have an option to review their request and decide if they’d like to go to a different site.” Interested students can go to CityYear.org for application information. Rolling recruitment deadlines for the 2014-15 City Year corps year are Feb. 15 and Apr. 30.

Contact City Year’s regional recruiter, Byron Anderson: banderson10@cityyear.org

Illustration courtesy of Wa Campus Compact

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