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PowerPlayer: City Year Executive Director Jennie Johnson

Monday, September 19, 2011


GoLocalProv’s latest PowerPlayer runs an organization that has been a pillar in the Providence community for nearly two decades. As Executive Director of City Year, Jennie Johnson oversees a program that consists of more than 50 young people who spend their days addressing the city’s high dropout rate by serving as tutors, mentors and role models in Providence public schools.

Johnson was kind enough to chat with us about the important work her organization, which has now grown to over 20 sites throughout the world, is doing here in Rhode Island.

1) Providence is haunted by an enormously high dropout rate. Tell us about the work City Year is doing to address this crisis.

City Year provides a crucial influx of human capital to Providence schools, with the hope of reducing the city’s dropout rate by providing the right interventions to the right students at the right time. The young leaders who serve with City Year – known as corps members – are currently deployed in four middle schools, where they are working with individual students to address chronic absenteeism, persistent behavior challenges and course failure in math and English, all indicators that a student is at a higher risk of one day dropping out of school. If a student is chronically absent, our corps members will call him at home, build personal relationships with him and his family, and invite him to participate in before-school activities. If a student is off-track in her English class, corps members will provide her with one-on-one tutoring to review material and keep her on pace with her classmates.

Along with targeted interventions, corps members work closely with teachers and administrators to provide whole school initiatives that promote a positive school climate and an engaging learning environment for students and their families. We’re also proud to partner with the Providence After School Alliance to provide expanded learning opportunities to youth.

Without the extra support, time and attention our corps members provide both during and after school, many students would fall through the cracks. Teachers and principals cannot possibly give every student the additional time and differentiated instruction they need when they are having a hard time in English or math class. Corps members are building strong relationships with teachers, so they can work together to identify and target struggling students in an intentional and focused way.

We have seen positive and compelling results so far. The students we work with are coming to school more, being suspended less and improving their grades. Our ultimate goal, and what drives me, is being a part of significantly reducing the dropout rate in Providence.

2) You run a federally funded program. How much of a concern is it that AmeriCorps will be cut from the federal budget? Can City Year survive without federal dollars?

Of course, it is a concern; AmeriCorps is a part of our funding formula, and it helps us leverage significant private funding. It will be a fight, but we work every day to educate champions and critics alike of the value of national service as a cost effective solution to some of our nation’s most pressing problems. We will continue to advocate, not only for City Year Rhode Island’s corps members and the thousands of other young people who want to serve, but also for the students and families we work with.

Do I think City Year can survive without federal dollars? I think it has to. The work is too important, the students are too deserving and the mission is too critical. In the five years that I have been with City Year, I have increasingly seen more amazing individuals, foundations and corporations come to the table to support our work and, perhaps more importantly, push for our growth. We have worked with city and school district leaders that are deeply committed to reducing the achievement gap and keeping youth in school. They share our sense of urgency; we must curb the dropout crisis. If we fail, the ramifications on our society are huge. With such dedicated partners, City Year is not going away. We will not let that happen, I will not let that happen. In fact, we are committed to increasing our corps size, and ultimately, our impact. We’re all in.

3) Take us through a day in your life.

I usually wake up with Blackberry thumb from emailing into the wee hours. That is a constant. Otherwise, no day is ever the same. It has a mix of internal and external meetings and ad hoc strategy check-ins with staff, board members and my national office. I read and follow up on emails and notes from meetings, usually write several thank you notes per day, and review what is on my radar screen in terms of meetings, grants and events. If I am lucky, I get to catch up on articles about education, politics, the goings-on in our city and state or a stellar article from the great folks over at GoLocalProv.com.

Before I had my son, who just turned 1, I could stay at the office a little bit later. Now, I “pause” usually around 5pm, so I can spend a couple of hours with him. After he goes to bed, I usually get back into the work mindset in order to tie up loose ends and prepare for the next day. In this job, like many, you don’t really ever shut it off, but it is important to make time to spend with friends and family and be fully present when doing so.

4) No one thinks one person or organization solve education problems in the city or in the state. How much collaboration is happening at the city to make sure public schools can be saved?

There is a lot of collaboration happening, and it is getting significantly more aligned, productive and effective. We began collaborating with PASA five years ago and the partnership has grown stronger every year. We are also proud to partner with the Boys and Girls Club of Providence, John Hope Settlement House, the Providence Housing Authority and the West End Community Center who, with PASA, manage the AfterZone programs in the four middle schools we serve in. They provide a critical resource to our youth and we are eager to continue to work with them to extend the learning day.

The City of Providence and the Providence Public School District proactively develop community partnerships. They know they can’t do this work alone and we are honored that they see us as a strategic partner. Last year, we signed a data sharing agreement with the school district. We were always working hard, but now we’re working smart. Data allows us to more effectively identify the students who need our support and track their progress. I think the agreement really epitomizes the kind of productive collaboration that is happening in the city. Of course, I have to give great thanks and credit to the principals, teachers and school staff who have opened their doors to us and made us a part of their learning communities. Without them, our work would not be possible.

Finally, we appreciate being a part of an active, forward-thinking community of nonprofit leaders, community leaders, City of Providence and school district staff who are committed to our youth from cradle to career. The Children and Youth Cabinet, for example, was formed to improve outcomes for children. We are working towards the long term goal of ensuring that the many transitions youth make in their lives are seamless, and we are ensuring that all of the people who support youth during their lives are communicating in a way that improves service delivery and impact.

5) Tell us something nobody knows about you.

Oh, man…I am a reality TV fan. It helps me decompress. Don’t tell anyone!

Quick Hitters:

Role Model: My late father

Favorite Restaurant: Gracie’s

Best Beach: Sand Hill Cove

Best Book You've Read In The Last Year: Make it Plain by Vernon Jordan, Whatever it takes by Geoffrey Canada, and the Arbinger Institute's Leadership and Self Deception

Advice For The Next Jennie Johnson: Lead with heart, ALWAYS put people first, and don’t let the challenges distract you from the long term goal at hand.

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