Establishing a school design “laboratory” and a charter school to serve as hubs of innovation for personalised learning

City Year works to bridge the gap in high-poverty communities between the support students need and what their schools are designed to provide. In partnership with Oak and the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, and in support of a new public charter school (Compass Academy) in Denver, Colorado, City Year established the School Design Division to continuously develop, test, refine, and disseminate new school practices.

“Compass Academy has given me opportunities to grow inside and outside of school and has also helped me understand and grow in things like self-agency, growth mindset and self-management.”

– 7th grade student at Compass Academy





Founded in 1988, City Year was inspired by the belief that young people can change the world through national service. City Year places over 3,000 full-time AmeriCorps members in 28 communities across the nation to provide high-impact student, classroom and school-wide supports that help students stay in school and on track to graduate from high school, ready for college and career success. All of City Year’s students are in low-income communities where there is an increased risk of exposure to trauma and many struggle with learning and attention issues. City Year AmeriCorps members support these students in growing core values, attitudes, and skills that holistically drive social- emotional growth, civic participation, and academic success, using youth development practices and an asset-based approach to counteract the adverse effects of poverty. The advantages of the near-peer relationship of the AmeriCorps members are leveraged through an interrelated set of services in schools: School Partnership Services, Academic Services, Student Engagement Services, and Progress Monitoring Services.







The Oak-funded School Design Division serves as a vehicle through which City Year and its partner, the Center for Organization of Schools at John Hopkins University (CSOS/JHU), can investigate and share new personalized learning innovations. Following a core belief that policy and practice must follow evidence, The School Design Division is committed to designing, implementing, promoting, and transferring scalable solutions that translate to schools and school systems across the country, and which can be implemented utilizing public resources in low-income, underserved communities where students with learning differences are especially vulnerable. Funding from the Oak Foundation supports the following objectives:

  • Designing academic and operational programs and providing operational and legal support for Compass Academy, a charter school opened in 2015 to serve as a proof point for a personalized learning approach that benefits all students, particularly those with learning differences;
  • Further developing the infrastructure of the School Design Division in support of the division’s goals to promote scalable, evidence-based practices; and
  • Developing, transferring and promoting the most successful evidence-based practices through Compass Academy and the broader City Year and CSOS/JHU networks.




  • More than 10 million children are growing up in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. Individuals living in poverty are 1.7 times more likely to have learning disabilities than those not living in poverty and are affected by negative life events at a rate of two times higher than the national average.

  • A randomized control trial conducted by MDRC found that schools that partner with Diplomas Now, a collaboration of City Year, Johns Hopkins University and Communities In Schools, significantly reduced the number of students at risk
    of dropping out according to research-based early warning indicators.




For information about this grant, please visit our Grant Database.





1. Strengthen teacher capacity

2. Engage students

4. Personalize learning





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In the media



Contact person for Oak LDP grant

Name: Duke Guthrie

Position: Senior Director, National Foundation Relations

Email: dguthrie@cityyear.org




Website & social media links


What have you accomplished through your Oak-funded programme that you’re most proud to share with your colleagues?


  • We supported the successful launch of a public charter school, Compass Academy, in Denver, Colorado, that aims to be a national proof point for innovative, evidence-based school design; cost-effective human capital strategies fueled by national service; student-focused school organization; and integrating rigorous academics, youth development, and social-emotional learning. Compass Academy currently serves a population of students that is 94% Hispanic, 87% qualifying for free- or reduced lunch, 59% English Language Learners; and 12% with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).



What’s the most interesting challenge your Oak-funded programme currently faces?


  • The most interesting challenge facing our partners centers around our efforts at Compass Academy to simultaneously achieve and drive outcomes in student achievement, social emotional development and bi-literacy. Not only is Compass Academy a new endeavor that requires rapid learning and improvement, but we are also trying to do something different and dynamic in education — instill in students, teachers, staff, and families the core Learner & Leader competencies that enable success in today’s rapidly changing world. There is no existing blueprint for how to get this right, which means we must be vigilant in documenting what we learn so that, in the long-term, we create a plan that benefits and inspires others in our community and the field.




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Oak Foundation commits its resources to address issues of global, social and environmental concern, particularly those that have a major impact on the lives of the disadvantaged. With offices in Europe, Africa, India and North America, we make grants to organisations in approximately 40 countries worldwide.

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