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

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    Eric Schwarz, chief executive of Citizen Schools, advocates ideas such as an extended day, hands-on learning, and adult mentors in classrooms.
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It isn't rocket science – though giving kids an opportunity to build and launch their own model rockets is often part of the program.

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."

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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.

In recent years, in fact, so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) programs have become part of the core Citizen Schools experience. "Half of our [programs] are in the STEM area," he says.

"We think it's particularly important to give low-income kids access to STEM professions," Schwarz says. Adult mentors teach students how to design video games, conduct experiments, and design websites. It gives students the opportunity to "see the connection between school and a career, and to get excited about STEM careers."

Citizens Schools is teaming with the White House to design a national model in which top Silicon Valley companies would encourage their employees to put 20 or more hours a year into volunteering with kids. For many Citizen Schools volunteers, Schwarz points out, "it's the highlight of their week, a chance to get out of their offices, go into some urban school across town, and work with [a classroom of] 12- or 13-year-olds on some really cool projects."

The program produces measurable success. While 33 percent of eighth-graders around the country say they are interested in STEM careers, 80 percent of students who participate in a STEM apprenticeship through Citizen Schools say they are interested in STEM careers.

The program is also opening a lot of adult eyes to new ways of thinking about education.

"As we've been able to prove more and more impact, and prove that this ... is actually changing schools and changing kids' lives, and leading to a 20 percent jump in graduation rates, and erasing the achievement gap between low-income and suburban kids, that has caught the attention of political leaders on both sides of the aisle and business leaders," Schwarz says.

"I've seen the Citizen Schools project within some of our most challenged schools and really seen that program play a role in the turnaround of some of those schools," says Mitchell Chester, the Massachusetts commissioner of elementary and secondary education. "I believe they played a substantial part in those turnarounds."

It's no coincidence that Schwarz has centered the program on middle-schoolers.

"It's a point in human development when kids are ... very desperate for chances to be successful, for chances to be mentored outside the family. They're desperate for chances to be very tactile, and build things, and see the relevance of school," he says.

It's the point, too, at which US education begins to fall behind. US students in third and fourth grades "are at the top of the pack" internationally, Schwarz says, but among industrialized countries, by the eighth grade they slip to the middle of the pack and then continue to fall back. "So middle school is really the forgotten part of the education reform chain."

Schwarz grew up in New York City but found a job in 1985 as a reporter at a suburban Boston newspaper. He followed that by becoming executive director of City Year Boston, a youth-employment program that exposed him to the world of nonprofit groups.

After cofounding Citizen Schools with Ned Rimer, he taught his first class at a school in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, helping 10 middle-schoolers publish their own newspaper. When the paper was ready to print, he rented a van, piled the kids in, and drove across Boston to a printing plant so they could see their newspaper "fly off" a real printing press. "They saw their bylines. They were running around the school" showing their newspaper to friends, he recalls with satisfaction. "They were hooked."

Today, Citizen Schools has 500 employees and a $30 million budget, funded by school districts, foundations, and generous individuals.

And Schwarz is still at its center. "He's amazing," says Tulaine Montgomery, a former Citizen Schools staff member who is now lead partner at New Profit Inc., a venture philanthropy fund in Cambridge, Mass. "He's the real deal. He's what he appears to be. He's sharp, and he's committed, and he's joyful, too, which is a nice combination." [Editor's note: The original version of this story misidentified Ms. Montgomery.]

Ms. Montgomery worked with Schwarz as Citizen Schools was setting up its first basement office "looking out the window at people's ankles and shoes as they walked past us," she recalls. "We were trying to convince schools to let us in. It was a bold and crazy idea at the time."

Today, the notion of extending the school day has gained nationwide momentum. That's a pleasing thought to Schwarz, who hopes more and more people will add their own twists to the concepts Citizen Schools has pioneered.

"I would like our ideas to become the new normal in American education," he says: Give kids more learning time, access to caring adults, and an opportunity to learn through hands-on projects. "If we do those three things," he says, "we're going to make this a better country and lift up education in a very powerful way."

• For more about the work of Citizen Schools, visit http://www.citizenschools.org.

3 ways to help educate children

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The Shirley Ann Sullivan Educational Foundation provides education to children and youths. Project: Give a child a gift of education.

Plan International USA provides children with educational tools and allows them to get the education they need for a brighter future. Project: Provide classroom essentials for one child.

Develop Africa sends educational books and school supplies to children. Project: Provide books and school supplies to children in Sierra Leone.

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