City Year works with low-income Denver students in fight education equity

Sometimes it’s as simple as a hello in front of the school at the beginning of the day.

That’s where 22-year-old George Janssen starts when he arrives at Abraham Lincoln High School in Denver to help guide and mentor ninth-graders as a City Year Americorps member.

“Our main goal is to develop relationships with the students and the academic achievement will follow,” he said.

Janssen, a recent University of Connecticut grad, is one of 76 City Year members stationed in 10 schools — ranging from elementary to middle to high — in the Denver Public Schools system. Their job: to help mostly students of color from largely low-income neighborhoods overcome long-standing challenges and make it to graduation day.

“We work toward education equity in our community,” said Emily Matthews, interim executive director of City Year Denver. “If students are able to read and write and meet math goals by the ninth grade, they will be on track to graduate.”

City Year, which works with 350 schools in 29 cities across the United States, is part of The Denver Post’s Season to Share initiative. The Denver chapter has been in operation for 10 years and works at schools ranging from Johnson Elementary School, Skinner Middle School and George Washington High School.

North High School, in northwest Denver, has been a City Year school every year for the past decade.

“Schools that partner with City Year are two to three times more likely to improve on math and English assessments,” Matthews said. “What we’re targeting isn’t just academic support — there are social and emotional aspects too.”

That makes for a full day, often running 10 hours or more, for Janssen and his colleagues at City Year. They may tutor, lead small group discussions or just check up on kids loitering in the hall after the bell has rung. Many City Year Americorps members continue to work with students after school, either in sports or club settings.

One of City Year’s secret strengths is choosing its members — sometimes referred to as “student success coaches” — from the 18 to 24-year-old age range. Having a “near-peer” mentor dealing with first graders to ninth graders, Matthews said, is invaluable to establishing the trust and kinship needed to make the relationships work.

“They’re close enough in age that they may be able to relate better,” she said.

The members get a $16,000 living stipend for the academic year and money to pay off college debt or put toward future classes. What motivated Janssen to join up with City Year was the chance to break out of his comfortable, white middle-class Connecticut town and experience something different.

He comes from a family of educators who would often focus on “how messed up the education system is,” he said. At Lincoln High, he can directly and personally address the struggles of kids who often live in households where English is not the primary language.

“Every day, the students are surprising me,” Janssen said. “I’m thinking about being a teacher.”

City Year

  • Address: 789 Sherman St, Suite 400 Denver, CO 80203
  • In operation since: 2011
  • Number of employees: 16 (76 City Year Americorps members)
  • Annual budget: $3.8 million
  • Money spent directly on programming: $3.1 million (approximately 82%)
  • Number of clients served: 6,300 students

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