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City Year: Addressing the High School Drop-Out Crisis, Developing the BE

Guest Blog Post by Dr. Max Klau, Director of Leadership Development, City Year

City Year is an education focused, nonprofit organization that unites young people of all backgrounds for a year of full-time service to keep students in school and on track to graduation.  City Year was founded on the belief that a year of national service has the potential to deliver a unique dual benefit:  It can provide transformational service to communities in need, while simultaneously developing the participants providing that service into effective, experienced, inspiring civic leaders.  In recent years, we have made breakthrough advances on both fronts.
City Year has recently committed itself to providing a large-scale response to the high school dropout crisis.  We have embraced a rigorous, research-focused, data-driven approach that is producing dramatic, exciting results. We have always believed that the energy and idealism of our nation’s young people is the most transformational force at work in the world today, and we are committed to demonstrating that this force can be harnessed and focused to make a measurable positive impact on this pressing public problem.  
At the same time, we have achieved breakthrough clarity in our understanding of leadership development.  Our new leadership development model, called The Flame of Idealism, integrates our dual focus on high-impact service and transformational leadership development.  Inspired by our colleagues in military service, we have adapted the U.S. Army’s “Be, Know, Do” leadership development framework that asks our corps members to grapple with the following three questions:
  • Who do I want to BE?
  • What do I need to KNOW?
  • What can I DO to effect change?
Our model recognizes that corps members develop in these ways while immersed in our unique culture of idealism, which is grounded in our core values.  Our model integrates these four elements in a conceptual framework that provides a sophisticated understanding of how these elements fit together, yet is easy to understand.  
Every element of this model is important, and all four elements have been designed to work together in an integrated and holistic way.  For the purposes of this blog post, however, I will briefly explore what we have learned about developing civic leaders at the innermost “Be” level of the Flame.  
City Year—like so many other leadership development programs—has always cared deeply about developing individuals at the BE level of the Flame.  Since our founding in 1988, we have wanted to not only teach corps members about leadership, but also help them become leaders at City Year, and in their lives after graduation.   As we have grown (we now enroll 2,000 corps members at 23 sites in cities across the U.S.), we have needed to support this founding vision by developing systems and processes  that ensure that each of corps members is developed at this level.  Just as we have learning and development systems that teach corps members how to do effective literacy tutoring or project planning, we need systems to keep corps members focused on how they are being as they do their service.  
After several years of experimentation and learning through trial and error, we have arrived at methods that achieve this goal in ways that are valued and effective for the vast majority of our corps.  We have learned a great deal about how to create large numbers of small-group reflective spaces that allow every corps member to step away from the demands of delivering service to get some valuable perspective on their service experiences.  Our structured reflection curriculum, The Idealist’s Journey, invites every corps member to view their year of service as a mythic journey of personal transformation, and ensures that every corps member has time to reflect on his or her own personal mission statement, values, and lessons learned through service challenges.  We provide every corps member with a process to use to find the right problems embedded in their service challenges, empowering corps members to stare into a complex service experience and find their own powerful and unique way forward.   And we have found a way to integrate this reflection experience seamlessly into a larger leadership development model that includes service delivery, training around skills and competencies, and participation in our unique, intentional culture of idealism.  
City Year recognizes that we do not need to choose between achieving measurable, large-scale impact and guiding each individual corps member through a uniquely personal journey of transformation.  Our model of leadership development-- and our thoughtfully designed systems and processes—allow us to do both, effectively, at the same time.  It’s an approach that promises to simultaneously address the nation’s high school dropout crisis while developing a generation of effective, informed, and experienced idealistic leaders for life.