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City Year Gets a Hollywood Boost as It Faces Threat of Federal Budget Cuts

The Sony lot last Saturday was the scene of a fete called Spring Break: Education Destination, with a heavy turnout of young stars, like Liam Hemsworth, Emma Roberts, and Pharrell Williams, along with studio executives. About $1.8 million was raised for City Year Los Angeles which, in the past decade, has drawn heavy interest from Hollywood figures in its mission to reverse the fortunes of at-risk schools.

That’s why, when the White House unveiled the rough outlines of its proposed budget for next year, there was alarm in the entertainment community. While much attention has been focused on the White House proposal to zero out funding for the arts and public broadcasting, the budget proposal also called for eliminating funding to the Corporation for National and Community Service. That helps finance AmeriCorps, which has provided City Year’s tutors and mentors, known for their distinctive red or yellow jackets, to City Year.

“It is just a shame that it is in jeopardy because of partisan politics,” said Giselle Fernandez, who is among the board members of City Year Los Angeles. “To deny this kind of funding, that would deeply impact how we serve our kids, is a travesty.”

City Year works with school districts to identify at-risk schools, and then provides one-on-one corps members to work with students. The idea is that kind of one-on-one attention and focus, even when they are in elementary school, can prevent them from dropping out. City Year also hosts school activities and support for teachers.

City Year Los Angeles branch also counts among its board members a number of executives and celebrities from the industry, including 20th Century Fox Studios chairwoman Stacey Snider, NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, Disney/ABC Television Group president Ben Sherwood, Kelly Mullens Brown, Hill Harper, Hannah Minghella, and Octavia Spencer.

If AmeriCorps funding is cut, it will not be the end of City Year, but the non-profit will be more reliant on fundraisers like the recent one on the Sony lot.

Groups like the Heritage Foundation have long targeted programs like AmeriCorps and argued that they are better left to get their full funding from the private sector.

But City Year leaders are that the elimination of AmeriCorps would be “devastating,” and that it serves as a base for drawing private and corporate philanthropy, as well as promotes the message that volunteerism and national service are national priorities.

“It is sad — now is the time we should be scaling national service rather than cutting it,” says Andell Inc. chairman Andrew Hauptman, the chairman emeritus and co-founder of City Year Los Angeles, who is a board member along with his wife, Ellen Bronfman Hauptman.

“For us, and for lots of organizations across the nation, it is difficult to watch, and frankly, it just makes no sense on any level,” he says. “The non-partisan nature of this — City Year has always prided itself on the fact that it is not. It has been equally supported by Republicans as it has been Democrats. That is how it always has been.”

City Year nationwide receives about $35 million from AmeriCorps to fund 28 local programs, representing about 25% of its budget. Its Los Angeles unit, which was started in 2007, uses 288 highly skilled AmeriCorps members to serve in 28 elementary, middle and high schools. According to the organization, it reaches about 27,000 students.

Fernandez said that she believes that City Year — so laser-focused on at-risk schools and reversing dropout rates — “is the solution to the education crisis in this country.”

“We are seeing a 30% increase in math and reading scores,” she said. “That is a monumental metric.”

She also said that the educational work that City Year does is a solution to widening income inequality.

She adds, “I care deeply about the divide in this city. We are the entertainment capital of the world, with the richest real estate and some of the most famous artists and stars, and yet we have this deplorable wealth gap.” She calls the need to boost graduation rates as an “economic imperative” for the city and the state.

Hauptman says that he was introduced to City Year through community and political activist Marge Tabankin, and was “just blown away by the optomism and the passion and the intelligence’ of the staff and volunteers. It was much smaller a decade ago: the organization served 8 schools. After he became chairman, one of his tasks was to increase its visibility, and reached out to entertainment industry figures.

“What stands out to me is being here 10 years out and looking back at how incredible it is to be around the table with a group of people to try to have a deep impact on the city in which they live,” he says. As such, the board is interested in the metrics, including a study showing that graduation rates have increased an average of 30 percentage points at L.A. high schools where City Year is involved.

Among those Hauptman recruited was Sherwood, who joined the board ten years ago when he was working as a journalist and author. Since then, he and his wife Karen have hosted City Year events in their backyard, and they and their two sons regularly participate in service days.

Sherwood says that the organization has a double impact — on the kids being helped, and the AmeriCorps members, who go on to careers such as police officers, teachers and community organizers, among other careers.

He says that he has heard numerous stories of students who “where failing out of reading. They just didn’t see how they were going to keep going. But it was the daily involvement of a City Year corps member who turned it around. They are always there to help. These corps members are a lifeline, and they are the safety belt that keeps a lot of them from dropping out. “

Greenblatt got involved with City Year shortly after he joined NBC. Comcast, parent company of the network, is a corporate sponsor.

“A high school dropout is six times more likely to end up in prison,” Greenblatt says. “You just know that is going to have a fiscal effect on the country if those things happen. It is not only keeping them in school and on track, but their chance to have success in life increases, and for society as a whole that helps economically.”

He notes that AmeriCorps funding was spared in the most recent budget bill — which funds the government through the end of September — and that has given hope that it is a good signal for future funding.

“We know these fights will be year by year,” Greenblatt says. “We have to keep the fight going.”

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