Agents of change

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  February 3, 2011

Geffrard, a recent graduate of the University of Southern Florida, hands each of the girls a sheet of paper with drawings of a brain, a heart, and a dreamscape and asks for thoughts on the future: what they want to learn, how they want to feel, what they want to do.

"You're very joyful," Geffrard says to Julianny.

Yasmin talks of staying away from bad influences, getting a good job. "I feel comfortable talking to her," she says, afterward.


But is it working?

There are some encouraging signs. Nationwide, the organization touts improved attendance for the students it has coached. Ninety percent of the elementary students it tutored in the 2009-2010 school year improved their raw literacy scores.

And educators say the idea at the center of City Year's push — highly personalized intervention — is the right one.

Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist says she's talked to a lot of dropouts around the state: "The theme I hear from them is no one seemed to noticed, no one seemed to care, or worse, even wanted them to be gone because they were causing a problem."

But City Year 2.0, for all its promise, is a work in progress. The organization is still feeling its way on math interventions. Its work in middle and high schools — always more challenging than elementary school — is nascent.

And it is difficult to isolate the group's impact from that of other organizations working in the schools — or, for that matter, from the impact of reformist principals and teachers.

Locally, City Year Rhode Island administrators say they are encouraged by anecdotal evidence that they are making a difference. But there are significant holes in their data; the group has no reliable figures, for instance, on the academic progress of the students it has tutored.

The organization recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Providence Public Schools that will give City Year teams access to student data. And staffers hope the information will allow them to target students — and track their progress — with far greater sophistication.

But some observers worry that this shift toward impact — and away from corps development — could be misguided.

"If we look at all the studies on the Peace Corps, if we look at impact — it's, at best, a mixed bag," says Rick Battistoni, a professor of public policy and community service studies at Providence College who served on the City Year Rhode Island board in the late '90s. "The one thing we do know about the Peace Corps is the impact it has on corps members is universally good."

City Year officials say they had some of the same concerns when they began the transition. But those concerns, they insist, have largely dissipated. The corps members' experience, they contend, has actually been enhanced in an important way: there is a sense of efficacy, now, that did not exist before.

But it is hard to deny that something has been lost. An organization that prizes data analysis and dogged effort is seeking a certain type of employee — a bit older, more college-educated. And the shift in the City Year demographic — locally and nationally — is unmistakable.

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