City Year Tackles the High School Dropout Crisis

Posted by Jenelle Thomson

DSCI0948City Year corps members based in Los Angeles write about their experiences.


An alarm sounds loudly in my ear. I groan as I blindly fumble to turn off my phone. I wonder if it is really morning already. I was up late writing a lesson plan, and I feel as if my eyes only closed for an instant.

I stumble out of bed and pad across the floor to the bathroom. As I look out the window, there is a red sun creeping up the horizon, behind a landscape of palm trees and skyscrapers.

I'm late. If there's already light outside, I'm late.

I arrive promptly at 7 a.m. every morning at a middle school one mile west of downtown Los Angeles. It is located in the city's most densely populated neighborhood, where residents are predominantly Latino and mostly new immigrants from Central America and Mexico. The majority of students at my school are English-language learners.

I am in my second year with City Year, a national nonprofit organization that unites 17-24 year-olds for a demanding year of full-time service. My first year of service was so indescribably rewarding that I jumped at the opportunity to return for a second year and gain valuable leadership experience. There are more than 1,500 City Year corps members serving at 19 sites across America. In Los Angeles, 150 of us serve as tutors, mentors, and role models to students in 12 schools throughout the LA Unified School District.

Our goal is to solve the national dropout crisis. Research shows that students at risk of dropping out of high school can be identified as early as the sixth-grade, according to early-warning indicators like attendance, behavior, and performance in school. We work in teams to tackle those indicators and get students back on track to graduate.

As a team leader for City Year, I support a team of 16 other corps members who work upwards of 50 hours a week and live on a weekly stipend of $250 because they are passionate about ensuring equal educational opportunities for young people. Some of my teammates graduated from LAUSD schools, while others have come from all over the country to empower these students. Having a diverse team with a spectrum of personalities makes things interesting; we fight like family, but we support each other like a family, too. And we're united by our common goal: to see our students succeed.

Our day starts with greeting all 2,000 students as they enter school and offering tutoring in the library for an hour before school starts. Then all 17 of us follow a track of students to their math and English classes to provide in-class support to a list of students flagged as at-risk for dropping out. Because the data shows that sixth grade is such a pivotal year, we have saturated the grade so that every sixth grader has a corps member in their class.

During our off periods, we plan schoolwide events aimed at promoting attendance, positive behavior, and academic achievement. These have included an attendance race, a spelling bee, a math literacy night, and a behavior assembly featuring a speaker from a gang intervention program. We also use planning time to develop curriculum for our after-school program, which consists of an hour of homework help and academic enrichment activities followed by a fun, educational lesson. The lessons are as varied as the corps members who develop them, ranging from capoeira, to drama, to the culture of the Middle East.

In the day-to-day, we sometimes question the difference we are making when a student just can't seem to grasp how, exactly, to divide fractions. While the year is not over, the data already shows significant gains. Since September, 70% of the students we work with have shown improvement in one or more indicators. And in truth, the greatest impact we have is difficult to quantify: the value of the relationships we establish with students not only in class, but before school, during lunch, and after school. As "near peers," we are positive role models and adults who care about them.

My students trust me and open up about whatever issues they're facing. They tell me what is going on in their lives and come to me for help. One of my students was relentlessly being bullied and wrote a letter saying he thought it would be better if he were dead. His teachers and I were able to talk with him about his problems and connect him to other resources for further support.

Since AmeriCorps regulations limit me to two years of service, I am currently exploring my options for a career path in the nonprofit sector. I often worry about what will happen to my students after this year, but I have to be content knowing that my presence at crucial times such as these will have a lasting influence in their lives. The real impact my teammates and I are making won't be seen by us. We are planting seeds that will one day germinate.
Jenelle Thomson is a team leader for City Year in Los Angeles.