In November 2016, City Year San Antonio invited the Rivard Report to spend a day with corps member Samantha Altamirano on the campus of Davis Middle School in San Antonio ISD. The day unfolded with the ups and downs of life in an inner-city school, but the corps members’ valuable contributions were obvious. Clad in their red jackets, Altamirano and her team connected with kids who desperately need support beyond academics.
“The thing I really appreciate is that she’s able to have a relationship with the kids that I don’t,” Davis teacher Danielle Miller said.
If Congress adopts the White House’s proposal to defund the 23-year-old Corporation for National and Community Service and with it AmeriCorps, San Antonio will likely lose most City Year and College Advising Corps services. Together the programs provide support for around 14,000 low-income students on 28 elementary, middle, and high school campuses.
AmeriCorps programs enable Americans to spend one year or more participating in civil service projects. Since 1994, AmeriCorps has deployed more than 1 million members to serve in programs focused on health, economic development, education, disaster relief, and public land maintenance. Its predecessor and now affiliate, VISTA, was founded by President John F. Kennedy in 1965 and has deployed 180,000 volunteers into some of the most impoverished areas of the country to help individuals gain the skills and resources they need to overcome poverty.
National College Advising Corps II, which has sites across South and West Texas, received two federal awards through AmeriCorps and its state arm, the OneStar Foundation, for a total of nearly $2.5 million.
“We are dependent on this funding to make all the adviser placements that we do throughout Texas and in San Antonio,” College Advising Corps Development Director Jim Mulvey said. “It would be a significant burden to [have] to replace this funding and sustain our current level of service.”
City Year San Antonio’s $3.2 million budget sees funding from partner district SAISD, AmeriCorps, and the private sector.
“This diversified funding base reduces our reliance on any one source of funding,” City Year San Antonio Chief of Staff Amanda Kelly said. All dollars raised by City Year San San Antonio stay invested in San Antonio, Kelly added.
“Eliminating AmeriCorps would be devastating for our ability to meet the needs of students and schools here in San Antonio,” City Year San Antonio Executive Director and Vice President Kelly Hughes Burton said. Many of the dollars come from matching grants that rely on money from the federal government. “Without AmeriCorps, we would likely need to reduce the number of schools we are partnering with and the number of corps members serving in San Antonio.”
Burton noted that AmeriCorps has enjoyed bipartisan support from Congress, and hopes that will continue in the budget process. In the meantime, “we are working with our local partners and champions to ensure that City Year will continue to be able to serve students. However, it would be very difficult to sustain our work at the same levels without the critical support from AmeriCorps,” Burton said.
In addition to losing services, corps members point to another loss: a network of professionals whose service with AmeriCorps gives them valuable insight into the challenges facing the United States’ youth.
“Working this year has confirmed my passion for working with young people,” City Year Corps member David Smylie said. “[I also enjoyed] participating in events at Burbank [High School] like the Hispanic Heritage Night or volunteering at the Eastside block party at Sam Houston [High School] and playground building.”
A 2007 study of national City Year alumni found that they were 45% more likely to vote and 60% more likely to volunteer than their same-age peers. In San Antonio, Kelly sees similar results. Like Smylie, 90% of those alumni also grew in their ability to work with people from diverse backgrounds.
“AmeriCorps members become civically engaged citizens and contributing members of society through their intensive year of national service, developing key skills for effective leadership in the community and workplace, [at places] such as Frost Bank, SAISD, USAA, and CPS Energy,” Kelly said.
On June 2, a cohort of City Year Corps members “graduated” from the program after completing their 11-month commitment. Smylie and others decided to stay on for more time.
“I believe my work with the students here is not finished,” Smylie said. “It is true that we work long days, situations can be stressful, and we do not make much, but it was worth it.”
College Advising Corps member Giovanna Espinoza will also be returning for a second year at Southwest High School. For her, the year was particularly impactful, because she benefitted from the program as a student at Harlandale High School. As a first-generation college student, Espinoza relied on corps members for guidance. She ended up at Trinity University, a great fit that she may not have considered without guidance. She now wants to pay it back – and pay it forward – by supporting that system.
“It’s a huge privilege to be able to say that you are helping someone realize their dreams,” Espinoza said. “You might be a very small part of their lives, [but] you know you helped them out.”
The College Advising Corps offered focused support in situations where school counselors were overwhelmed with other issues, Espinoza said.
For many students, the jargon and bureaucracy associated with college applications is a major hurdle in enrolling in classes. Something as seemingly simple as registering for courses can become the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back by convincing them that they won’t succeed in college.
“You forget that these little things matter,” Espinoza said.
Helping students find the right fit, connect to scholarships, and pass prerequisite classes requires non-stop oversight, as distractions and fear often work against them.
“As you get to know your kids, you really figure out that yes, this is going to be their best fit,” Espinoza said. “Now how do I keep them motivated?”
Being at Southwest High School all year and being able to come back for a second year, offers consistency for students and allows Espinoza to dole out resources at a manageable pace. Because the students see the College Advising Corps members regularly, information on scholarships, grants, and programs – and all the applications that come with them – doesn’t have to be dumped on them all at once.
In high poverty situations, there are plenty of cracks along the way for students to fall into. AmeriCorps programs aim to keep students from stumbling in the first place. City Year corps members anticipate challenges and let students know that they are seen, heard, and expected to make it to graduation. College Advising Corps members then try to cover the large crack between high school and college.
“It is absolutely critical to keep AmeriCorps,” Espinoza said. “These students need advocates.”