Denver schools brace for Trump’s proposed AmeriCorps cut

Student Alaya Martinez, City Year corps member Patrick Santino and student Dorian Medina at work at North High School in Denver. (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat)
Student Alaya Martinez, City Year corps member Patrick Santino and student Dorian Medina at work at North High School in Denver. (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat)
Student Alaya Martinez, City Year corps member Patrick Santino and student Dorian Medina at work at North High School in Denver. (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat)

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Cassi Feldman and Eric Gorski on February 23, 2017.

From when the first students arrive until the last ones leave, eight young adults in white AmeriCorps T-shirts are a constant presence at Denver’s North High, a comprehensive high school where “Viking Pride” has not traditionally translated to academic success.

The corps members, part of a program called City Year, help run North’s social justice and writing clubs, hold kids accountable for their attendance and behavior, and team up with teachers to make math and literacy skills stick with ninth-graders.

All of that could vanish next year.

President Donald Trump is set to propose slashing the AmeriCorps program from the federal budget, according to a document obtained by The New York Times. That would cost more than 11,000 schools support that they use to help students who’ve fallen behind, build playgrounds, and offer after-school programs.

On a recent morning, North High School Principal Scott Wolf watched a City Year corps member pull four struggling students out of an algebra classroom and into a hallway, where he sat with a whiteboard explaining how to identify the intersection points of two variable equations.

“A student in those classrooms, they may otherwise just be checked out, sitting there not knowing what to do,” Wolf said. “The corps members allow us to provide supports we could not otherwise offer our kids. Our students open up and can relate to them.”

AmeriCorps has been threatened before, but members and supporters have good reason to fear this time could be different. President Trump has promised significant cuts to government programs, and Republicans control Congress and can easily sign off on them.

The prospect of the elimination of federal funding has brought uncertainty to the 80,000 working AmeriCorps members and the schools and communities that rely on them. It has also mobilized the organization’s leadership and supporters to make their case to Congress that the relatively modest investment — just .03 percent of the federal budget — is worth it.

“We are prepared for this,” said Morris Price, vice president and executive director of City Year Denver, which works in nine city schools.

“We have to make a case every year anyway. Now we have to make that case not just at the local level but at the congressional level, of the impact we have. We can’t get lazy. This reminds us of that.”

The proposed cuts target the Corporation for National and Community Service, a $1 billion-a-year agency that finances programs run by AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, a volunteer organization for people over 55.

About half of the agency’s grant funding goes to education-related work, officials said, making it a significant player in school improvement efforts across the country. Its programs include City Year, College Possible, Playworks, Citizen Schools, the National College Advising Corps and a school-based foster grandparent program through Senior Corps.

“We are lucky that for more than 50 years, successive administrations of both parties have engaged with this concept of national service,” said Samantha Jo Warfield, spokeswoman for the Corporation for National and Community Service. “We know the best solutions come from outside Washington where ordinary citizens are doing extraordinary things.”

That federal support is leveraged to raise money from other sources, including private foundations, school districts, universities and colleges, and corporations. The end result is an additional $1.25 billion — more than the federal contribution, according to the agency.

AmeriCorps, however, has long been in the sights of conservative budget hawks and those who don’t believe it’s the government’s business to subsidize public service. (Corps members are not volunteers. They receive a stipend to help with living expenses, health insurance, and another $5,800 after the completion of each year to pay for additional education or to help pay off student loans.)

At Denver’s Manual High School, which is trying to reinvent itself yet again after a series of reforms, City Year corps members are integrated into all aspects of school life, principal Nick Dawkins said.In cities ranging from New York to Denver and Memphis to Detroit, roughly 3,000 City Year corps members work alongside teachers and school leaders in long-struggling, high-poverty schools.

In addition to logging 875 hours helping students with literacy and math this year, corps members have surprised teachers with coffee and donuts, served free breakfast to students, and played chess and Monopoly with kids during tutoring, Dawkins said.

Part of the philosophy of City Year is that corps members — 18 to 25 years old — are not far removed from school themselves, allowing them to forge stronger relationships.

“In a tighter budget picture, I would hate to see programs like this go away,” Dawkins said. “I just think they are great kids and are great for school culture.”

In some cities, the possibility of losing funding for programs is throwing plans into question.

In Memphis, the school district is piloting an after-school tutoring program launched through City Year. Now in two Memphis schools, it is designed to grow to five schools and 50 AmeriCorps members by next school year.

Project director Karmin-Tia Greer said it’s too soon to tell what gutting AmeriCorps would mean for students in Memphis. Currently, AmeriCorps provides about 25 percent of the project’s funding.

“We hope that Congress will continue to support AmeriCorps, which has shown to positively impact students and schools in a cost-effective way,” she said.

In New York City, home to the nation’s largest school district, more than 250 City Year corps members serve in 24 public schools with about 13,000 total students, officials said. AmeriCorps members have also served in the city’s community schools and through programs like Blue Engine, Harlem Children’s Zone, and Teach for America, whose corps members use stipends to help pay for their master’s degree programs.

Through another AmeriCorps program, Citizen Schools, 41 corps members act as teaching fellows in high-needs middle schools in Harlem and Brooklyn, where they also help mobilize community partners to volunteer, said Wendy Lee, executive director of Citizen Schools NY.

“Our entire operating model is based on having AmeriCorps service members in schools,” Lee said. If funding were cut, she said, “We’d either have to rethink staffing or rethink the way our model is delivered.”

As AmeriCorps staff and supporters make their case to Congress, they will point to results.

A 2015 study examining three years of educational outcomes in 22 cities found that schools that partner with City Year were up to three times more likely to improve on math and English assessments.

In Denver, three-quarters of the schools with City Year corps members have moved up in the city’s rating system. That includes North High School, where Wolf, the principal, credited City Year for helping with the turnaround.

Brittanyanne Cahill, 26, who is in her second year of City Year Denver service, reports similar progress at the Hill Campus of Arts and Science.

The suburban Atlanta native majored in special education in college, did a stint student teaching, signed on as a corps member at Hill last year and came back this year as a “senior corps member” mentoring first-year corps members and working with students.

“My eyes have been opened,” she said. “There is so much hardship. Schools around the country are not able to provide the support that all students need to succeed.”

Eric Gorski reported from Denver and Cassi Feldman reported from New York. Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman in Memphis contributed reporting.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.