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In This Week's Phoenix: City Year and the Evolution of Service

My cover story in this week's Phoenix on City Year, the urban peace corps, was an unusually personal project. I was a City Year corps member myself in Boston, fresh out of high school, in 1993-1994 - working in a day care center in a public housing project in the mornings and in an afterschool program in the afternoons.

It was an impactful experience - working with the kids, but also with my team - composed of 10 other people of enormously different backgrounds: a Wesleyan graduate from Hawaii, a high school dropout, a young man struggling with a drug problem. City Year, as I suggest in the story, was possibly the only institution in the country offering that kind of experience at the time. But there was something missing. A lack of direction, an occasional tone deafness when it came to what our service partners - schools, community centers, etc. - really needed.

The new City Year I discovered over the last few weeks is making a real and determined effort to change that, to be impactful, by focusing on the droput crisis devastating urban America in an intense way. But the composition of the corps has changed as a result - it's more college educated, less diverse. I'm a little ambivalent about the shift. But I think it is probably the right one in the end.

We'll only know for sure, though, when we have a comprehensive study. City Year-commissioned research has shown some early, encouraging results. But the best test, I think, is yet to come.

The City Year model, at its most fully evolved, involves a partnership with a school reform group and a social services organization in 10 cities around the country. That effort, collectively known as Diplomas Now, has received a $30 million expansion grant from the US Department of Education. And part of the grant will play for the sort of randomized control study that will give us our clearest sense, to date, as to whether City Year and its partners are on to something truly transformative.

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