Hollywood gives to school-volunteer program

City Year works to help improve grades, lower dropout rate

As DreamWorks CEO Stacey Snider was driving to work last week, she heard a radio report that said California's budget crisis is going to trigger more education cuts.

That made her thankful for City Year, a national program that places volunteers in schools as tutors and mentors and sports an impressive record of improving grades and lowering the dropout rate.

City Year will be on her mind when Snider speaks before 400 educators, government officials and fellow entertainment execs at a two-day event called "In School & On Track: A National Leadership Summit" that begins Tuesday in Los Angeles.

Snider recently joined the board of City Year L.A. and describes her role at the convention as "a kind of consciousness raising." J.J. Abrams and Anne Hathaway also are among those scheduled to speak.

"Portrayals of service in the media," Snider said, "is something people like me and J.J. can do."

The gathering is co-hosted by the Entertainment Industry Foundation, the charitable organization chaired by former Paramount chief Sherry Lansing that uses the power of show business to raise awareness for social, educational and health issues. In October, the EIF kicked off "I Participate," with studios, networks, agencies and guilds taking part in volunteer activities. The effort included placing scenes and themes of volunteerism in more than 90 TV shows in one week.

One program spotlighted was City Year, which began in 1988 in Boston and now is part of AmeriCorps, a federal program that offers volunteers tens of thousands of opportunities to serve through a network of partnerships with local and national nonprofit groups.

City Year has 1,550 volunteers ages 17-24 working in schools in 20 U.S. cities, and it has inspired programs in the U.K. and South Africa.

"By using people in front or and behind the camera to talk about the importance of service, learning and these type of programs, we can help solve community-based problems," said Lisa Paulsen, CEO of the EIF, which granted $1 million to City Year L.A. "The media can drive these messages by utilizing the unique assets of our industry to make service and volunteerism a first-tier issue."

City Year launched in Los Angeles three years ago. Volunteers are high school and college grads who receive a small stipend, health insurance and -- upon completing 10 months of service in an at-risk school -- $5,000 for tuition or for student loans. They also get red and yellow jackets and Timberland boots.

"We're really lucky in Los Angeles to have great support from the entertainment industry," said Allison Graff-Weisner, executive director of City Year L.A. "They have sponsored teams of young people in some of the toughest schools across L.A. who have really made a difference for the kids."

City Year, which gets one-third of its funding from the government through AmeriCorps, raises much of the rest in the private sector. Its record is impressive: Among elementary students with City Year mentors, 77% improved reading scores; for middle school students, 54% improved in math and English. Plus, dropouts decreased.

"The impact they have on kids staying in school and graduating is just phenomenal," said Ted Harbert, CEO of the Comcast Entertainment Group and a City Year L.A. board member. "I've been so impressed by how effective their program is that I had to get involved."

Comcast last month mobilized 54,000 employees nationwide for a day of volunteer projects, many involving City Year.

Harbert wants Hollywood to take notice.

"We've all been to black-tie dinners, and they are great, but what happens is there is a list of big charities everybody knows about," he said. "I want to get City Year on that list of things people contribute to and support."