Who Needs Superman?

11/17/2010 01:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Anyone who feels inconsolable about the future of America's public school system should visit the headquarters of City Year New York for a bit of cheering up.

City Year is not a charter school, nor is it a children's zone. It is a nonprofit organization that boldly asks young Americans from age 17 to 24 to "Give a Year. Change the World." In the case of City Year, changing the world -- or at least beginning to do so -- means agreeing to do 10 months of national service working full-time as a tutor and mentor at a high need public school.

One cannot help but be optimistic standing in an office bustling with young people from all across the county, representing every possible background, all with the shared conviction that one person can actually make a difference, and that the tremendous challenges that plague our education system can be overcome if every young person in the nation worked together.

Naysayers are generally inclined to quickly discount such boundless enthusiasm among young people as naiveté, but according to many of the biggest names in U.S. education today, City Year and the members of its corps have every reason to believe in the effectiveness of their effort.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is a strong supporter of City Year's work, as is departing New York City Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein and former Washington D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who was featured prominently as one of the heroes of Davis Guggenheim's recent documentary Waiting for "Superman".

In praising City Year, all three of these education chiefs point out the importance of mentors in the lives of students, an element of academic success which is all too often overlooked. City Year's corps members don't just offer academic encouragement and tutoring, they cheerlead for the students so the students will in turn learn how to cheer on themselves.

Before school even starts, corps members greet the arriving students with applause to excite them about the coming day. They also give out modest awards for accomplishments like most improved attendance. In the case of chronic absences, the corps members follow up to find out if the student is having any problem that needs to be addressed.

Throughout the morning and afternoon, the corps members provide teachers with classroom support, generally by offering group or one-on-one tutoring assistance to students struggling with math or literacy. At lunch, the corps members lead clubs that focus on leadership, mentoring, and homework help.

After school, the corps members organize homework help, service learning, and confidence-building activities to keep the students engaged and involved hours past their academically required day. Often these extracurricular activities will involve dance, photography, journalism, and other areas of interest that students may not have access in the course of a regular school day.

"It's not about a miracle fix," observes Rachel Mosbacher, 23, who joined City Year to give back to the New York City public school system that educated her. "It's about consistency. That's why we're there for a year."

This persistent, individualized attention is particularly effective because the corps members are close enough in age to the students to be their "near peers." This special relationship has pronounced effects on the academic success of a school. According to an August 11, 2010 Daily News article, "In 2008-2009... The average City Year NY school had a 15.4% increase in students meeting and exceeding standards, while schools citywide improved by an average of 11.2%."

Other measures of City Year's impact on New York City schools are just as encouraging. At I.S. 126 in Long Island City, Queens, the City Year team helped reduce the number of chronically absent students from 184 in the 2008-2009 school year to 58 last year. In addition, the number of students who were absent 10 days in a row or more decreased dramatically from 166 in 2008-2009 to seven in 2009-2010.

At P.S. 149 in East New York, Brooklyn, a staggering 100 percentof the students City Year worked with who were underperforming academically in the beginning of 2009 were back on track by the end of the school year.

City Year's contribution is appreciated by school administrators too. Ninety percent of principals and liaisons surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that City Year programs helped to strengthen students' academic performance, while 92 percent agreed or strongly agreed that corps members help foster a positive environment for learning. 100 percent of the administrators and principals surveyed said that City Year participants serve as positive role models for students.

Results like these have spurred Chancellor Klein to seek to significantly expand the number of schools City Year NY serves from the 20 elementary and middle schools in which it currently operates. City Year NY has set even more ambitious goals for itself. Its current aim is to halve the number of dropouts in New York City's high need community school districts within the next five years -- an objective that would profoundly impact the lives of 7,260 students, while requiring City Year NY to more than triple the number of corps members who join the program every year from 234 in 2009 to 730 in 2014, an enormous fundraising and organizational challenge for any nonprofit.

City Year NY is already the largest of City Year's 20 national affiliates, which include Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, a site in Louisiana established to offer aid post-Katrina, and Boston, where the organization was founded in 1988 by Michael Brown and Alan Khazei. It was a visit Bill Clinton paid to the Boston site when he was governor of Arkansas that led to the creation of a City Year affiliate in Little Rock and partially inspired him when he became President to create AmeriCorps, the landmark national community service program of which City Year is now a partner.

The former President is still a big fan of the organization, as is Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who once served as City Year New York's Honorary Co-Chair. John McCain, Colin Powell, and U2 frontman Bono all have high praise for City Year too.

But no one speaks with greater passion and love for City Year than the people who invest their lives into the program.

"For me, the entire experience so far, I've never been so motivated before to keep going," explained Natashea Winters, 22, a corps member from Greenwich, Connecticut currently serving at P.S. 149.

"Spend an hour with a corps member in a school and you can see that to those students, heroes are real. There is no greater feeling than that," said Itai Dinour, who was City Year New York's first employee and is now its Executive Director.

"It's awesome!" exclaimed Mat Thomas, 24, a corps member from Dallas, Texas. "The coolest part is the energy. Everyone is so young -- at least in spirit."

Thomas' acknowledgment of the young in spirit is an affectionate nod to 85-year-old David Caplan, the vice chair of City Year NY and the honorary "Dean" of the program. Despite being four times older than some of the corps members, Caplan champions City Year with boundless enthusiasm and dizzying vivacity. Speaking with Caplan, it is hard not to wonder if there is anyone who could possibly take greater pride and pleasure in their work, and yet express it so modestly. A successful retired businessman, Caplan happily works 50 hours a week for $1 a year, and vows to keep doing so as long as he possibly can.

The greatest joy of the job for Caplan is watching how the corps members grow and mature as a consequence of the meaningful contributions they make to the lives of others. "City Year is like a double feature or a double header," enthuses Caplan. "The students thrive with the help of our corps, and our corps thrives through their work with the students."

To Caplan, this simultaneous benefit gets to the heart of why America should encourage more of its young people to embrace national service. When President Obama spoke to City Year Chicago as a Senator he expressed a similar sentiment: "Who's the next generation that is going to lead us and inspire us and build an America we can be all be proud of? When I look out at all of the City Year corps members who have been giving so much of themselves for a cause that is so much larger than themselves, I think I have an answer to that question."