When the public charter school inhabiting the long-frayed physical shell of Prescott Middle suffered two feet of water in the floods, the teachers and staff of Democracy Prep like many others in the Baton Rouge area and across southeastern Louisiana responded with a full-court press of support for their students and families affected.
It was a dramatic lesson for a Teach for America-trained staffer, Liz Franson, about the quality of the new institution she joined, but it was not her first rodeo in terms of community service.
Chicago-born, she had been at loose ends after college before discovering City Year, the community service program that led her to work for a year in an inner-city school on her hometown's tough south side.
The lesson of service is perhaps not a quantifiable output for the modest amounts of federal money spent on City Year — much more is raised from the private sector — but Franson has been able to pay off some student loans with the stipend from her City Year service up north, and will get a similar benefit after her TFA stint.
That’s part of the value of the federal support for City Year and Americorps. The Trump administration proposes to zero it out.
“They are leading in their communities,” Jennifer Eplett Reilly says of the young people in the program she helped start in 1987 as a graduate student in Massachusetts. Marriage brought her to Louisiana, and she was then able to organize, in crash mode, the City Year program in Louisiana after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
It now serves thousands of students in schools in New Orleans and Baton Rouge areas, traditional schools and public charters. The corps members, near in age to those they mentor, can help with attendance and other teacher chores, cajole students into doing their homework, and generally be models for success for younger children.
While there are quantifiable benefits in educational results for the schools, the real value for donors and the taxpayer is in teaching the corps members — ages 17 to 25 — to serve and to lead in society.
One of them is Aaron Randolph, who came a long way from Cornell University in the Ivy League to Belaire High School in Baton Rouge, where he served in City Year. After receiving his master’s degree in education from Harvard University, he returned to Belaire’s graduation.
He calls it one of the most gratifying days of his life, as students — including “the ones you had to chase the most to do homework” — left the stage with diplomas.
Randolph now serves with the Baton Rouge Youth Coalition, mentoring students from poorer families into scholarships and graduation at top colleges in the state and the nation.
Trump’s budget proposals on this front are apt to meet with resistance, in part from Louisiana Republicans on Capitol Hill who have seen City Year’s work, or seen the role of Americorps volunteers — coordinated by fellow Republican Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser’s office — in emergency response after last year’s floods.
There is a bigger lesson here: City Year and other national service programs ought to be conservative favorites, not targets of the Trump administration. Investing in social cohesiveness is the reason that President George H.W. Bush and leaders in both parties since have supported national service.
Today’s conservative thought promotes libertarian selfishness out of the fantasies of Ayn Rand novels, not the society most of us live in, or want to live in. Bush’s son, George W. Bush, urged Americans to be citizens, not spectators. Better, citizens who lead, like Franson and Randolph.
“The impact of one year’s service does not stop there,” Randolph said.
Email Lanny Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.