City Year is considering bringing its youth service organization to Kansas City schools

Red-jacketed workers from the City Year program help various communities. On Monday at the Kauffman Foundation, an information session ended with a “spirit break” involving Jeff Shafer (top, center), a participant who graduated from Lincoln College Prep.
Red-jacketed workers from the City Year program help various communities. On Monday at the Kauffman Foundation, an information session ended with a “spirit break” involving Jeff Shafer (top, center), a participant who graduated from Lincoln College Prep. The Kansas City Star

Jeff Shafer grew up east of Troost Avenue, he says. He knows Kansas City.

He knows there is important work that young City Year AmeriCorps members could do here if they mixed their life-changing energy with children and teens in some of the city’s neediest schools.

Shafer saw them first in Chicago, riding the early morning trains to Chicago’s South Side, wearing their unmistakable red jackets.

Several Kansas City forces — notably the Kauffman Foundation, the Kansas City Public Schools and the mayor’s office — made it clear in a rally at the foundation this week that they are serious about getting community support to bring a City Year program to Kansas City.

Shafer is a City Year disciple.

The Lincoln College Preparatory Academy graduate followed those red-jacketed service workers into those South Side Chicago schools.

He set aside his degree in communications and marketing from Columbia College in Chicago at the age of 23. He trained instead for City Year’s mission and served schools where students carry the weight of poverty and gang wars.

“The city is diverse but often segregated,” the now-28-year-old City Year staffer told The Star, referring to Chicago. “And I was seeing them on the train going off in every direction — every one of them passionate and wanting to make a difference.”

They’re between ages 17 and 24. They’re willing to work from the dawn of each school day until that last after-school program is done, serving as tutors and mentors, building relationships with troubled children, supporting the work of classroom teachers.

They do it for a mere $12,500 a year, roughly, and for chances at college tuition vouchers and scholarships.

Corey Scholes, director of education for the Kauffman Foundation, loves their idealism.

“It’s the beauty of youth,” she said, “having the audacity to say, ‘We’re going to do something about this.’”

Shafer was one of Scholes’ students when she was an assistant middle school principal at Lincoln College Prep in the early-2000s. His stories to her about his post-college work fascinated her.

The more Scholes learned about City Year, the more she wanted it in Kansas City.

Co-founders Michael Brown and Alan Khazei started City Year in Boston Public Schools in 1988 with the belief that talented young people, in the same spirit as Peace Corps workers, could be trained to serve a year as youthful models to students and help improve educational outcomes.

The program’s success was a major influence on President Bill Clinton’s efforts to launch AmeriCorps through the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993. City Year began to branch out to other cities.

These young workers meet up with targeted children and build “near-peer” relationships that can greatly enhance the motivational work of the school staff, Scholes said.

“You see someone who’s practically your age and he’s fighting for your future,” Scholes said. “It’s magic.”

This week’s gathering of civic and philanthropic leaders, along with City Year leaders, continued a joint exploration of whether Kansas City can summon the support to launch the program here.

Based on the experience of other City Year programs, Kansas City would likely need a commitment of $3 million to $4 million to secure the first four years of programming, though actual details could vary, said Christine Morin, City Year’s senior vice president for site growth and new site development.

City Year has opened programs in 25 cities, and the process is a careful courtship that takes one to two years, Morin said.

Many of the supporters of a Kansas City program saw City Year’s corps members at work first-hand in November, visiting public schools in Orlando, Fla., that are in their third year with the program.

Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Steve Green and some of his staff took the trip, as did Julie Holland, the education adviser to Kansas City Mayor Sly James.

The tour had to start early. City Year’s youths are at their posts by 7:30 a.m., before students arrive, ready to greet them as they come in the front door.

Everywhere the Kansas City visitors looked, Holland said, they could see the powerful relationships with children.

A young City Year staffer leading a tour took the visitors into Orlando’s Oak Ridge High School, where he had previously served as a City Year member, Holland said.

“When kids saw that he was back in the school, they were so excited to see him,” Holland said.

They got to see the workers make their morning phone calls to households with attendance concerns. Then came the tutoring sessions and group classroom work in collaboration with teachers. There were mentoring lunches with students. Debriefing time with each other. And then after-school programs.

The City Year experience at Oak Ridge is capping a long-struggling revival of a high-poverty school that had been considered “the pit” of the school system, said James Lawson, the minority achievement officer for Orange County Public Schools in Orlando.

“You did not want to go there,” he said.

In its third year in Orlando, City Year is now “an integral part” of its revival, Lawson said. “We can’t do without it.”

City Year’s own research says the program is driving better student outcomes, and its teacher surveys show teachers overwhelming approved of the role the youths took on in their schools.

It helps that the youths only add support to the teaching staff and programs already at work in the schools — an important distinction in the often-territorial world of education.

“They are not seen as competition,” Mayor James said, differentiating City Year from programs that serve as teachers. “They’re not Teach for America.”

Their mission fits perfectly with the city’s Turn the Page KC early literacy campaign, he said.

The rally this week will add fuel to an overall effort “to leverage every opportunity and the people out there to focus more attention and resources on the problem,” James said beforehand.

Green, Kansas City’s superintendent, liked the way the Orlando youths labored together with teachers with great care and resilience.

The work is hard and sometimes draining, Shafer said. It can be tough emotionally, especially when the disruptions of poverty or gang shootings in their children’s outside lives tumble down on the school.

“It takes its toll,” he said. Corps members will wonder if they are making a difference — if they’re doing what they signed up to do, he said.

“That’s when you home in on the kid you’re working with,” he said. “The one kid right there.

“It takes persistence. It takes love.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.