By Matt Stewart, Gotham Magazine
Erica Hamilton and Jeremy Kroll’s awareness of City Year and its mission to reduce drop-out rates in America’s most challenged public schools dates back decades.
Hamilton, who has served as City Year New York’s executive director since 2012, first saw the group’s signature red jackets as an undergraduate at Harvard; and Kroll, who cofounded K2 Intelligence (an investigative and risk analytics consulting firm), learned of the organization as a freshman at Georgetown. He joined the board in 2013 before taking on the role of chairman this spring.
An estimated 1 million students drop out of high school every year in the US. Despite the best efforts of former Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, the New York City public high school rate stands above
the national average, at more than 11 percent; 50 per-cent of those students come from 14 percent of the city’s high schools.
As part of a yearlong push to lower dropout numbers, City Year New York’s volunteers have been tutoring and mentoring students between third and ninth grades in the most at-risk schools. What’s unique about the initiative is the near-peer filter for the young volunteers. Close in age (17 to
24 years old) to students they are tutoring, these volunteers provide hands-on mentoring and serve as accessible role models for academic success. Here, Erica Hamilton and Jeremy Kroll talk about City Year’s programs in New York and throughout the country.
ERICA HAMILTON (EH): I always considered City Year an urban Peace Corps. I used to see the red jackets in various high-need communities like Roxbury, Massachusetts, when I was an under-grad and thought the concept was pretty cool. For a young woman from the Bronx who had a deep passion for service, I thought it was great that that concept was being brought to the inner city.
JEREMY KROLL (JK): At Georgetown I started seeing City Year T-shirts worn by kids from the Boston area, where City Year was a new organization. About four years ago I was re-exposed to it by a good friend, Brian Berger, who is on the board, and his stepbrother, Ken Grouf, who is a cofounder of City Year New York. I was incredibly impressed with your vision and what you were building.
EH: I am inspired by the perseverance of our corps members. We work in some of the most challenging schools and seek out the students who need our help most. Last year, one of our corps members, Bettina Hahn-Lawson, spoke at our Ripples of Hope dinner about the relationships she has with her students. She spent weeks showing up for her tutoring sessions, only to be ignored by one of her students who was known throughout the school for his behavioral issues. After weeks of one-way conversations she finally made a breakthrough. They both had similar family situations at home and talking about it helped him open up to her. Eventually, he started participating in tutoring and arriving at school early to get extra help with his homework. He stopped acting out in class and his grades began to improve. He ended the year passing all of his classes and on track for the next grade. Our work is never easy but our corps members keep showing up and it is this persistence that helps them make a difference in students’ lives. Right now we have about 300 young people in our corps who are serving in 22 schools and support about 15,000 students. Our plan over the next 10 years is to aggressively grow the scale of our programs. We want to expand and concentrate on neighborhoods displaying the highest levels of need. Our goal is to get to somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 corps members who would work across 65 schools and support about 40,000 students.
JK: As a data-driven person, one of the things that attracted me was City Year’s ability to focus its resources on students who needed the most assistance. You and the team in New York have such a firm understanding of the data. Because of that we’ve been able to attract amazing pro-bono support from consulting firms like Bain & Company and Deloitte & Touche. We work very collaboratively with the Department of Education here in New York City and also on the federal level. I am very focused on recruiting corporations, financial institutions, professional service firms, and technology businesses to get involved as partners with City Year. It is an incredible product.
EH: There was a corps member last year named Dio [who] ended up serving at a middle school in the Bronx he attended as a student. Dio was a first generation American and the first to go to college in his family. He embodied our corps members at their best—young, impassioned, idealistic. Dio became this beacon of hope for the students he was counseling and mentoring; he also had a queue of students who were waiting to spend time with him and understand his personal story. They wanted to know how he made it out and why he came back. It was inspiring to the point that when Dio finished the year, he was moved to tears. I think he knew it was going to be a special experience for him, but you really don’t understand the impact you’re having on other human lives until you witness it. It was moving for me to watch him over the year [because] I am Dio and I speak as someone who came from that community and have the same story. It moves me to my core