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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.

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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.

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"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.

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