Education / News / Politics

Federal budget axe swings at City Year

As Congress debates, Hunts Point faces loss of programs

Jennifer Harwood, City Year Bronx Zone Director serving with students.

Jennifer Harwood, City Year Bronx Zone Director serving with students. Photo by Jennifer D. Cogswell

Diana Marino used to hate to read. The eighth-grader grew frustrated whenever she came to a word or phrase she did not know. Her grades suffered as a result. Then she met Alice Pak.

Last year Pak “kept motivating me and taught me to read a little bit daily until I started getting use it, “Marino says. “Now I love reading and am inspired to read more.

Pak works for City Year, a nationwide organization of volunteers, 17-24, who spend a school year in inner city schools, working with students to help them succeed.

All told, 254 City Year members serve New York City public schools, including PS 48, PS 75, MS 302, and MS 424 in Hunts Point and Longwood, where they work to improve student attendance, behavior and performance.

But their program is in danger. Saying federal spending must be drastically reduced, the Republican-controlled House of Representative has voted to eliminate all funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service, a move that would put City Year’s parent organization AmeriCorps out of business.

The cuts are part of the budget bill now being debated in the Senate, where the Democrats who control the upper house are trying to restore some of the money.

“Our job is a very difficult job,” says MS 424 Principal John Hughes. “It is still difficult with City Year, but without them it would be incredibly difficult, because what they do is help us to provide students with a better chance to have a meaningful one-to-one relationship with an adult.”

For years, city and state education authorities branded the school a failure, but last year MS 424 was removed from the state’s list of failing schools.

Hughes says that the mentoring City Year members offer students, along with support for the school’s staff and engagement with parents, has been invaluable in the school’s improvement.

“It’s hard work, but corps members all come back because they have a relationship with the kids,” said Liz Farias, City Year’s team leader at MS 424. “They put their heart and soul into it. They’re here because they want to be here. They’re here because they want to be the role model these kids deserve. People come for different reasons, but at the end of the day we all agree it’s for the kids.”

“The fact of the matter is that there are so many intangible things that are being done by these folks that can’t be measured statistically,” says Hughes. “A lot of it has to do with attitude, with their ability to reach their potential, with the tone of the school. It would be criminal to lose that.”

If Congress does not restore funding, City Year volunteers will stop serving in 21 high-need public schools with 50 percent drop-out rates in New York, leaving 3,000 at-risk students further at risk for dropping out, according to Ian Rees, the organization’s communications manager.

The elimination of AmeriCorps funding would also mean losing more than $6 million in corporate, private and public sector contributions, along with $1.3 million in scholarships that City Year New York graduates use to pay for college, Rees said.

At MS424, students will lose personal attention that corps members provide in class, one –on-one tutoring and after-school programs that teach topics ranging from healthy eating to service learning.

Above all, students will lose a mentor. “The great thing that City Year provides is a mentor to look up to who is not quite the imposing authority figure of a teacher or a parent, but someone who is wiser and older and can give students advice while not seeming judgmental,” said Peter Vernon, who teaches English Language Arts to eight-graders.

If this program were to close down, it would be truly a disappointment,” said Marie Milord, whose two fifth-grade sons are in an after-school program at The Point Community Development Corp., where the local branch of City Year has its headquarters and where volunteers work in after-school programs.

The mentors as well as the students benefit from the relationship, said Veronique Green, a 21-year-old City Corps volunteer at MS 424. Green says the student she mentors reminds her of herself when she was in school. Then, she had a mentor who encouraged her to go to college. Now she is doing the same.

“I serve City Year because it was a way for me to give back what I was given. I was given that support and hope that I would make something of myself, and I wanted to give it to someone that deserves or needs it,” she said.

Green’s return to the community is an example of what Earl Skinner, Youth Programs Director at The Point, wants to imbue in youth.

Among his goals for young people is “to have them come back, take over our jobs and run the community,” Skinner said.

In addition to the programming with City Year that will be eliminated, The Point’s various cultural, artistic, and instructional programs will also take a hit if the Senate does not restore the funding cut by the House.

“We are very accomplished in doing more with less,” said Skinner. “But you can’t cut the less that we have now.”

A version of this story appears in the April 2011 issue of The Hunts Point Express.

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