City Year's Struggles

When City Year, a unique and much-praised community-service organization, was established in Boston in 1988, its co-founder, Michael Brown, said it would be a "community of idealism."

That's been tough to achieve. According to local news reports, last year the federal government, which provides half of City Year's funding, questioned $2 million in expenses, saying the organization couldn't provide documentation. It ordered City Year to pay back $250,000 after discovering it spent money meant for scholarships on salaries and rent.

To its credit, City Year has acknowledged its errors and has taken steps to correct them. Yet observers say a lack of attention to financial details is just one symptom of a larger problem. In their rush to expand nationally, Brown and Alan Khazei appear to be focusing less on what made City Year successful - service and a diverse group of young corps members - and more on their own plans.

The results include some less-than-satisfied City Year "clients" (schools, service agencies, etc.) and some corps members who aren't getting the training necessary to do their jobs. Two-thirds of the high-school dropouts in the organization fail to get a high-school equivalency degree, even though corps members traditionally have been enrolled on the condition that they complete a GED course during their City Year stint.

This isn't to imply that expansion is all wrong. From the start, City Year has served as a model for President Clinton's national service program, and it has done a good job. While AmeriCorps requires national service programs to raise 15 percent in private funding, City Year raises 50 percent. Its projects include building food pantries, repairing playgrounds, and tutoring children. There are now City Year branches in seven cities.

The program has given young people a chance to do something positive with their lives - to serve others and to work with people from vastly different backgrounds. Other organizations have learned from City Year. They may now learn from its mistakes.

City Year has its work cut out for it. Though its founders' goal is "to spread idealism to every corner of the globe," it has to start focusing more on its own corner. Idealism isn't enough. Concentrating on meeting the needs of schools, community groups, and, of course, corps members is imperative.

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