'Citizen Schools'

If you don't think some motivated teamwork can make a difference in public schools, check out Citizen Schools.

How often do middle-schoolers get to consult as landscape architects for their school? Or create real billboards? Or work in a world-class scientific lab?

Not often enough, according to the four-year-old organization - especially when they hail from low- to moderate-income families. So Citizen Schools pulled together volunteer professionals, several schools, and some funding.

Suddenly, kids were trading free time after school, on Saturdays, and during the summer in favor of apprenticeships and classes with real-life results. A recent festival showcasing their work explains why - and defies a lot of stereotypes about what's going on in urban schools.

Just talk to Sheldon Ayala, a student at Wilson Middle School in Dorchester, Mass. Last year, his summer class got involved in a $250,000 project to renovate the drab backyard of Wilson under the guidance of a Boston landscape architecture firm. This summer, students are watching their plans become reality.

"I feel proud, I feel like I made a difference," says Sheldon.

So do other students. From Terrance Blackman - whose e-mail club exchanged notes with students in Kosovo, and is developing a guide to building community to send over - to Dominique Dunn, who designed a trash can to beautify a local square, the kids learned that if they'll work hard, professionals will help them and businesses will back them. Talk to participants and parents, and you feel as if anything is possible. "We pull from the best of progressive and conservative strands," says Eric Schwarz, Citizen Schools' president. "We want hands-on authenticity while pushing students to reach an adult standard."

Volunteers (who give two hours a week) as well as kids are held to high standards. When students help organize the best-attended candidates' event in a high-profile US congressional race, it's clear something extraordinary is going on. Maybe it's that "village" thing. After all, in many ways, these are ordinary schools, ordinary students, ordinary professionals. But they're united behind a powerful idea: that creative synergy between public schools and their extended clientele can spark achievement. No talk of vouchers here. Instead, committed staff and volunteers are gearing up to expand to more school sites - and children who may have never looked much beyond their backyards are setting their sights on a broad new world.

* Comments? Send e-mail to newcomba@csps.com, or write to Learning Editor, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115.

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