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Difference Maker

Eric Schwarz and Citizen Schools give inner-city kids a leg up

Citizen Schools helps level the playing field for students who grow up in low-income households by extending and enriching the school day with hands-on projects and citizen mentors.

By Staff writer / January 11, 2013

Eric Schwarz, chief executive of Citizen Schools, advocates ideas such as an extended day, hands-on learning, and adult mentors in classrooms.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff



It isn't rocket science – though giving kids an opportunity to build and launch their own model rockets is often part of the program.

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Eric Schwarz is remaking public education in the United States using a simple formula: Extend the school day, give kids adult mentors, and let them get their hands dirty.

The program, called Citizen Schools, has succeeded so well that Mr. Schwarz has been invited to the White House to explain how it works and has been featured in the new book "Everyday Heroes: 50 Americans Changing the World One Nonprofit at a Time."

Now at work in 14 US inner-city school districts and on one Indian reservation, Citizen Schools is seen as a model for making dramatic improvements at low-performing schools. To do that it partners not only with AmeriCorps, the quasi-governmental service organization, but with some of the biggest names in US business, including Google, Hewlett-Packard, and Cisco Systems.

The idea is to level the playing field for students who grow up in low-income households.

"In this country we have a growing achievement gap based on family income. It's actually a bigger gap than it was 50 years ago," Schwarz says in an interview at the Citizen Schools headquarters in a renovated brick building on Boston's waterfront, just one pier away from the replica of the historical Boston Tea Party ship. "The reason is, I think, is not that poor kids are learning less, but that rich kids are learning more because their families are giving them all these opportunities to get violin lessons, go to robotics camp, get extra coaching and tutoring, and have lots of chances to be [around] successful adults.

"Those opportunities are incredibly unequally provided in our society, and Citizen Schools changes that."

A "second shift" of Citizen Schools instructors take over at middle schools (sixth to eighth grade) around 2:30 p.m. when the normal school day ends. For three additional hours teachers from AmeriCorps and volunteer mentors from the business community help students keep learning. Most of the time that means shoving the blackboard aside and giving students hands-on experiences that will fire up their imaginations.

Over its 18 years Citizen Schools has invited to be mentors dancers, children's book authors, bike repair experts, engineers, journalists, filmmakers, photographers, carpenters, lawyers, architects, "every profession you can imagine," says Schwarz, who is the group's cofounder and chief executive.

Classes can even involve rocket science. When an adult mentor comes in and helps students launch their own model rocket, he points out, they are forced to think about scientific concepts like velocity, resistance, and gravity if they want to succeed. "And that motivates kids to want to do the hard math" behind the experiment, Schwarz says.


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