Curbing Miami's Student Drop-Out Rate
City Year Miami board chair Tere Blanca and executive director/vice president Saif Ishoof discuss their commitment to turning at-risk students into academic achievers.
City Year Miami Executive Director Saif Ishoof and Board Chair Tere Blanca at Allapattah Middle School, where the program is helping students find academic success.
Saif Ishoof was walking a fine line between admirer and stalker when he first approached Tere Blanca to turn her attention to City Year Miami. It was 2009 and Blanca, who is president and CEO of commercial real estate brokerage and advisory firm Blanca Commercial Real Estate, was center stage at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts to pass the gavel to her successor as the chair of The Beacon Council.
Ishoof waited for Blanca to begin her exit before he approached with the lines he had been practicing in his head: “Ms. Blanca, you don’t know me and you’ve probably not heard of City Year, but I know exactly where your next leadership role is going to be.” Blanca liked Ishoof’s moxie and joined City Year Miami’s board in 2010 before assuming the role of chair last October. She and Ishoof are furthering the cause of City Year Miami by overseeing an army of young volunteers (between the ages of 17 and 24) who dedicate a year of their lives to working full time with the most at-risk students in Miami’s most at-risk schools.
An estimated 1 million students drop out of high school every year in the US, and half that number come from just 12 percent of schools. Forty percent of fourth graders in Miami Dade read below their level, a statistic that throws students off track and dramatically increases their chances of not graduating. As part of their yearlong commitment, these corps members—easily recognizable by their red City Year jackets—tutor and mentor distressed students. The innovative “near peer” model and hands-on involvement that is the basis of City Year give impressionable students a new outlook on possibilities for their futures.
City Year Miami Program Manager Walker Moseley (center, in the organization’s signature red jacket) leading a group of middle school students.
Tere Blanca: When you approached me that day at the Arsht Center, I remember saying, “Though I don’t know you, I like your spunk. I only ask that you give me about six months. I need a short break.” And you waited exactly six months and then started knocking on my door. Once you find out about City Year and the amazing work that we do, you can’t help but fall in love with it.
Saif Ishoof: We had a magical connection. Your brand and what you had accomplished at The Beacon Council and in the commercial real estate field inspired me before I had a chance to meet you. I prattled on for a while, but when it is about selling someone on what you are most passionate about, you give it your all.
TB: It is truly inspiring. It is important to note that our corps is very diverse. That brings a tremendous connection to the students. In many cases, the corps volunteers had very similar experiences as the students that they are working with in our schools. It’s not only about increasing attendance and creating that social support and behavioral shift in the school and curriculum enhancement, but also to serve as inspiration. If you are able to accomplish that, that is something special.
SI: Our model is heavily pegged on third, sixth, and ninth grade, but our model is also called “Whole School, Whole Child,” which means we are trying to transform a whole school by playing a role within the life of every student who needs us. We run lunchtime mentoring programs, we are heavily engaged in the afterschool tutoring space, [and] we are a super resource for teachers and administrators within their schools. We’re deeply committed to the goal to make sure that every ninth grader we are working with who has a risk factor makes it to 10th grade. Our corps members are putting in 50, 60 hours a week sometimes to make sure that every student in the schoolhouse gets the resources that they need.
Ashley Jones providing tutoring and social support for students.
TB: From an economic development standpoint for Miami to attract new business and to grow our economy, all of us need to be concerned about delivering an educated community, so that we have a workforce that is skilled and can tackle the challenges of the 21st century.
SI: Miami is experiencing a very special moment on many frontiers, and education is one of them. The leadership of our school superintendent is driving the centerpiece of this moment. Superintendent [Alberto M.] Carvalho came to us in 2010. He loved the work we were doing and wanted to make an investment to increase the scale of City Year. We went from 82 to 134 corps members, and we expanded from elementary schools to high schools.
Blanca and Ishoof with kids at the Miami-Dade public middle school.
TB: We’ll have 400 to 500 corps members in the next five to six years across 36 schools that we have to be in. What Superintendent Carvalho challenged us to do was to make an impact in the most challenged high schools, but now we know that we need to continue to stay strong in the elementary and middle schools to make sure that over a long period of time we will be able to intervene with the students who have the most challenges. That way, by the time they arrive at high school, they are not facing these challenges.
SI: One of the stories I think about is Binsen Gonzalez, who was a member of our founding corps in 2008/09. He is a Miami kid whose family is from Central America, who went to Miami-Dade public schools and served as a founding corps member before he went away to Emerson College. Binsen returned to Miami after graduating and worked on staff with us at City Year before founding his own nonprofit, called Our City Thoughts, which is a digital story-telling platform that captures the rich and robust stories of the new Miami that just won a major grant from the Knight Foundation. Binsen is a social entrepreneur, a service warrior who helped to launch City Year in this community. There is no better example that if we invest in our young people, Miami will begin to see the fruit of that work and become the type of global city we need to be.
photography by gary james