Big Town Big Heart:
Keeping At-Risk Students in School
David Caplan admits that he volunteers too many hours at City Year NY. Jokingly, he says, “My wife Barbara is not thrilled with the fact that I spend 50 hours a week at City Year and get paid $1 a year.”
But you can’t keep a good man down. The 85-year-old vice board chair’s passion and enthusiasm have earned him the title “Dean of City Year NY.”
A national non-profit organization, City Year serves 20 cities in the U.S., as well as Johannesburg and London. Founded in Boston in 1988, the organization believes that they can help solve the school drop-out crisis by tutoring and mentoring at-risk students to give them the skills they need to remain on track to graduate high school. City Year hires young people (age 17-24) of all backgrounds for a year of full-time service as tutors, mentors, role models and leaders of after-school programs.
Established in 2003, City Year NY deploys teams of full-time corps members to New York City public schools to partner with teachers and principals. Their goal is to help improve student attendance, behavior and course performance in reading and math.
In 2009, 234 full-time City Year NY corps members served in 20 under-resourced elementary and middle schools in Harlem, East New York, Long Island City and the South Bronx.
“Our biggest mission is to do what we can to eliminate the drop-out crisis,” says Caplan.
Over the next decade, more than 12 million students are expected to drop out of schools across America. The bottom line – high school dropouts are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than graduates and three times more likely to be unemployed than college graduates.
This is where City Year NY makes the difference.
In 2008-2009, schools served by City Year NY made greater progress than the average city public school. The average City Year NY school had a 15.4% increase in students meeting and exceeding standards in reading, while schools citywide improved by an average of 11.2%.
In the next five years, City Year NY plans to place corps members in enough schools to cut in half the number of drop-outs in high needs community school districts.
But to reach 60% of at-risk students in those four districts, City Year NY must triple the number of corps members – from 234 to 740 – over the next five years.
This growth will allow City Year NY to impact at least 7,260 students each year, and to ensure that those students stay on course to finish high school.
David Caplan is going to make sure that happens. His history of public service and awareness began in 1942 when he joined the US Navy. “It used to be called the lily white Navy,” he says.
“Hispanics and blacks could only work in the galley or clean officers’ cabins. That had a major impact on me.”
Fast forward to Notre Dame and a successful career in the apparel and textile industries where Caplan was honored as Man of the Year three times.
After his retirement in 2002, Caplan spent time building PENCIL, an organization that fosters an ongoing relationship between city leaders and individual schools.
“I have always been extremely interested in education and struck by the huge differential of treatment to minorities,” he says.
Caplan got involved with City Year NY after 9/11. “It was like a double header – on one hand you have the corps – if they don’t come in as idealists, they go out as idealists. The other half of the double feature is the major impact these leaders make in the schools – they give the kids confidence in improving their skills.”
He notes how one principal said, “My kids either join a gang or they join City Year New York.”
Caplan has embraced City Year NY as his personal cause. He says that he spend 30 percent of his time fund raising while the remainder is for mentoring staff and corps, attending education conferences and helping out in the schools.
Laughing, he recounts that his wife of 50 years will ask, “Was the biggest thrill of your life when we got married?”
“I say, ‘No dear, the biggest thrill of my life was when City Year honored me with a red jacket.’”
He recalls an instance when he arrived to volunteer at a Harlem school at 7:30 a.m. When he approached the playground, all of the kids came running to him. “I’m 85 years old and they recognize me by that red jacket. It’s the highest honor that City Year can give someone!”
Caplan also has a huge amount of respect for the corps of City Year, the kids who work from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. for a minimal stipend.
Campaigning for a cause seems to run in the Caplan family. Four out of five of his kids are employed in the non-profit world.
“Barbara always says to them, ‘you’re missing the same chromosome as your father.’”
But, in the end, he says that it all comes down to a favorite quote from Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
For more information, call (212) 675-8881 or www.cityyear.org.