Children Take to Being a Professional
BOSTON — Twelve-year-old Jeff Jones knows exactly what he would have done this summer if he hadn't enrolled in an unusual apprenticeship in Boston: "Nothing. I'd be sitting at home."
Nine-year-old Nicole Moy, another participant, offers a similar scenario. "I would just be staying home," she says. "The past few summers it was boring - staying home and doing nothing."
For Jeff, Nicole, and 158 other nine-to-13-year-olds in Boston, the past five weeks have been anything but boring or sedentary. As participants in an apprenticeship-based summer program called Citizen Schools, they spent weekdays at three public schools publishing newspapers, making flower boxes, stitching quilts, creating public-service videos, and painting furniture, among other projects. Their teachers, who volunteered their time, were professionals and artisans ranging from carpenters, journalists, and chefs to dancers, interior designers, and naturalists.
"There's such a huge opportunity in out-of-school time," says Eric Schwarz, co-founder of Citizen Schools, explaining the philosophy behind his year-old program. Typically, he notes, children are awake more than 5,000 hours a year. They spend only about 900 of those hours in the classroom, he calculates, leaving more than 4,200 waking hours out of class.
Even when adults try to fill some of those hours, Mr. Schwarz says, "Too often the rallying cry is, 'Let's keep kids off the street.' But that's such a low standard. We really need to engage adults from the broader community so that out-of-school time can become one of the highlights of a young child's life. The way kids learn best is by hands-on, learning-by-doing projects. And the best people to teach them are experts in those fields."
One of those experts is Martha Eddison of Cambridge, Mass., a speechwriter for former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. On the first day of her journalism class, students were too shy even to explain what a headline is. But as they learned how to put together a newspaper - how to talk to strangers, how to organize their thoughts, how to write - she watched them blossom.
"It's like Miracle-Gro for these kids," says Ms. Eddison about the program, which is funded by foundations and corporations and serves children from a variety of income levels. "In a few weeks they can go from having no confidence and no skills in the area you're teaching to having produced this fantastic product. They learned all the lingo. Kids love the vocabulary of a profession. It makes it very real to them."
Such experiences also serve a larger purpose. "Kids from families who are struggling may never be a lawyer, journalist, or business person because they can't imagine how they'd get there," she says. "These classes give them a sense of what the path is. They learn that someone who wants to be a journalist should read a lot, work on the high school paper, go to college."
In a course on quilting, instructor Louise Kuhlman went beyond a typical arts-and-crafts approach by explaining the history of American quiltmaking. "I wanted them to get the big picture of what quilting is about," she says. "There's also a lot of math involved, and a lot of exactness."
Arnaldo Solis, one of her students, agrees. "You have to think hard," he says. "You have to be sure what you are measuring and to measure the angles."
A workshop called Fielding at Fenway also offered training in advocacy. After building a scale model of Fenway Park, Jeff Jones and seven other students initiated a letter-writing campaign, urging Red Sox officials and city council members not to let the historic park be torn down.
Yet Schwarz doesn't stop with skill-building. Classes also emphasize the importance of community service. Flower boxes from a carpentry class will be given to schools. Newly stitched baby quilts are being donated to a charity for at-risk babies. And jewelry from a jewelry-making class is being sold to help fund a scholarship at the school.
On a sunny Friday in mid-August, students celebrated their achievements at a Citizens Fair that drew nearly 1,000 people. Under colorful striped tents on Boston's waterfront, they displayed their products and projects, staged a play, and performed dances.
Noting the sense of accomplishment visible on many young faces at the event, John Werner, a Citizen Schools site director, says, "These kids are hungry to be competent and successful. If you set high expectations, they'll rise to the occasion."
Bob Goodman of Watertown, Mass., whose son Nicholas took classes in cooking, video production, and city government, shares that enthusiasm. "This is just a wonderful blend of hands-on experience and new learning," he says. "It's been very stimulating." He also praises the program for giving his son the chance to meet children from other cultural backgrounds.
Citizen Schools will continue as an after-school program in the fall. Schwarz and Mr. Werner hope it can serve as a model for such programs elsewhere.
"In the future, the landscape of education will be defined by the community getting behind kids," says Werner. "It won't be seen as charity work." Eddison agrees, saying, "Whatever job you've got, it suddenly takes on a whole new glow when you start transferring those skills to a child."
Adds Jacques Carter, a physician who helped students create an antismoking video, "Everybody talks about how they want to be involved in helping families. Here, people who never thought they could do anything like this find they have something to pass on to the kids."
As students said their goodbyes last week, some reflected on their experience. "It helped me so I didn't waste my time," says Jeff Jones. "Without this I wouldn't have done anything."
And Nicole Moy already knows what she'll be doing next summer: "I'm coming back here," she says happily, "because I like it."