cause and effect

Trump’s proposed AmeriCorps cuts would trim .03 percent of the federal budget — but slash support at 11,000 schools

PHOTO: Eric Gorski

From when the first students arrive until the last ones leave, eight young adults in white AmeriCorps T-shirts are a constant presence at Denver’s North High, a comprehensive high school where “Viking Pride” has not traditionally translated to academic success.

The corps members, part of a program called City Year, help run North’s social justice and writing clubs, hold kids accountable for their attendance and behavior, and team up with teachers to make math and literacy skills stick with ninth-graders.

All of that could vanish next year. President Donald Trump is set to propose slashing the AmeriCorps program from the federal budget, according to a document obtained by The New York Times. That would cost more than 11,000 schools support that they use to help students who’ve fallen behind, build playgrounds, and offer after-school programs.

On a recent morning, North High School Principal Scott Wolf watched a City Year corps member pull four struggling students out of an algebra classroom and into a hallway, where he sat with a whiteboard explaining how to identify the intersection points of two variable equations.

“A student in those classrooms, they may otherwise just be checked out, sitting there not knowing what to do,” Wolf said. “The corps members allow us to provide supports we could not otherwise offer our kids. Our students open up and can relate to them.”

AmeriCorps has been threatened before, but members and supporters have good reason to fear this time could be different. President Trump has promised significant cuts to government programs, and Republicans control Congress and can easily sign off on them.

The prospect of the elimination of federal funding has brought uncertainty to the 80,000 working AmeriCorps members and the schools and communities that rely on them. It has also mobilized the organization’s leadership and supporters to make their case to Congress that the relatively modest investment — just .03 percent of the federal budget — is worth it.

“We are prepared for this,” said Morris Price, vice president and executive director of City Year Denver, which works in nine city schools. “We have to make a case every year anyway. Now we have to make that case not just at the local level but at the congressional level, of the impact we have. We can’t get lazy. This reminds us of that.”

The proposed cuts target the Corporation for National and Community Service, a $1 billion-a-year agency that finances programs run by AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, a volunteer organization for people over 55.

About half of the agency’s grant funding goes to education-related work, officials said, making it a significant player in school improvement efforts across the country. Its programs include City Year, College Possible, Playworks, Citizen Schools, the National College Advising Corps and a school-based foster grandparent program through Senior Corps.

“We are lucky that for more than 50 years, successive administrations of both parties have engaged with this concept of national service,” said Samantha Jo Warfield, spokeswoman for the Corporation for National and Community Service. “We know the best solutions come from outside Washington where ordinary citizens are doing extraordinary things.”

That federal support is leveraged to raise money from other sources, including private foundations, school districts, universities and colleges, and corporations. The end result is an additional $1.25 billion — more than the federal contribution, according to the agency.

AmeriCorps, however, has long been in the sights of conservative budget hawks and those who don’t believe it’s the government’s business to subsidize public service. (Corps members are not volunteers. They receive a stipend to help with living expenses, health insurance, and another $5,800 after the completion of each year to pay for additional education or to help pay off student loans.)

Blue Engine teaching assistant Alexandra DiAddezio helps 10th-grade geometry students with a project.

In cities ranging from New York to Denver and Memphis to Detroit, roughly 3,000 City Year corps members work alongside teachers and school leaders in long-struggling, high-poverty schools.

At Denver’s Manual High School, which is trying to reinvent itself yet again after a series of reforms, City Year corps members are integrated into all aspects of school life, principal Nick Dawkins said.

In addition to logging 875 hours helping students with literacy and math this year, corps members have surprised teachers with coffee and donuts, served free breakfast to students, and played chess and Monopoly with kids during tutoring, Dawkins said.

Part of the philosophy of City Year is that corps members — 18 to 25 years old — are not far removed from school themselves, allowing them to forge stronger relationships.

“In a tighter budget picture, I would hate to see programs like this go away,” Dawkins said. “I just think they are great kids and are great for school culture.”

In some cities, the possibility of losing funding for programs is throwing plans into question.

In Memphis, the school district is piloting an after-school tutoring program launched through City Year. Now in two Memphis schools, it is designed to grow to five schools and 50 AmeriCorps members by next school year.

Startup director Karmin-Tia Greer said it’s too soon to tell what gutting AmeriCorps would mean for students in Memphis. Currently, AmeriCorps provides about 25 percent of the project’s funding.

“We hope that Congress will continue to support AmeriCorps, which has shown to positively impact students and schools in a cost-effective way,” she said.

In New York City, home to the nation’s largest school district, more than 250 City Year corps members serve in 24 public schools with about 13,000 total students, officials said. AmeriCorps members have also served in the city’s community schools and through programs like Blue Engine, Harlem Children’s Zone, and Teach for America, whose corps members use stipends to help pay for their master’s degree programs.

Through another AmeriCorps program, Citizen Schools, 41 corps members act as teaching fellows in high-needs middle schools in Harlem and Brooklyn, where they also help mobilize community partners to volunteer, said Wendy Lee, executive director of Citizen Schools NY.

“Our entire operating model is based on having AmeriCorps service members in schools,” Lee said. If funding were cut, she said, “We’d either have to rethink staffing or rethink the way our model is delivered.”

As AmeriCorps staff and supporters make their case to Congress, they will point to results.

A 2015 study examining three years of educational outcomes in 22 cities found that schools that partner with City Year were up to three times more likely to improve on math and English assessments.

In Denver, three-quarters of the schools with City Year corps members have moved up in the city’s rating system. That includes North High School, where Wolf, the principal, credited City Year for helping with the turnaround.

Brittanyanne Cahill, 26, who is in her second year of City Year Denver service, reports similar progress at the Hill Campus of Arts and Science.

The suburban Atlanta native majored in special education in college, did a stint student teaching, signed on as a corps member at Hill last year and came back this year as a “senior corps member” mentoring first-year corps members and working with students.

“My eyes have been opened,” she said. “There is so much hardship. Schools around the country are not able to provide the support that all students need to succeed.”

Eric Gorski reported from Denver and Cassi Feldman reported from New York. Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman in Memphis contributed reporting.

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.