How to be a hero? Find out, after school.

"Future!" an energetic adult bellows into the bustling school cafeteria. A sea of schoolchildren quiets down a bit to respond: "Leaders!"

The scene is perhaps a common one: A teacher tries to hush students, even instill a positive mantra in the process.

But this man isn't your typical teacher - and actual school let out hours ago.

John Werner is a campus director for Citizen Schools, an after-school program in Boston. His involvement since the program started in 1995 recently earned him the New England Isuzu Afterschool Hero of the Year award, sponsored by the Afterschool Alliance in Washington, D.C., and the Entertainment Industry Foundation. The innovative nonprofit "apprenticeship" program brings together "citizen teachers" - volunteers ranging from auto mechanics to lawyers - with urban-area students ages 9 to 14.

The program matches at least two adults with several children. They might learn how to write a play, create a PowerPoint computer presentation, or implement community projects.

Citizen Schools, which is growing like the young people it serves, now reaches more than 1,000 students at 11 campuses citywide - rapid progress from its original one-campus reach and a single fax machine.

Werner thinks big. The majority of programs available, he says, target a few kids, help get them into private school, or let them explore one subject in depth. What he wants, however, is for Citizen Schools to become the next nationwide, federal-education initiative, something like Head Start.

Uncharted course

The opportunity to create an entirely original education program - similar to the Internet craze, Mr. Werner reckons - is what jazzes him about his career.

He first gained interest in education in college, when he spent his summers in New Hampshire working with emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children. Werner decided he wanted to reach out to kids before they ran into problems.

Fresh out of college, he taught special-education in Boston public schools. Then he tried his hand in politics, working on a gubernatorial campaign.

But he ultimately went back to teaching, at which point he crossed paths with one of the founders of Citizen Schools just as the program was starting up. He found it a perfect mixture of his interests: teaching, politics, education reform, and community building.

He concedes he doesn't make as much money as, say, his former college roommate who works as an investment banker. But his friend has said he wishes he could make as many creative decisions in a year as Werner does in a day.

Ask Werner about his award, and he'll humbly chalk it up to a growing interest in the role of after-school initiatives in raising academic performance, keeping kids safe, and helping working families.

Some 15 million children are home alone after school, according to the Afterschool Alliance. And the Alliance reports that children in after-school programs are 49 percent less likely to use drugs and 37 percent less likely to become teen parents.

Citizen Schools provides less-advantaged kids with tools to navigate the large, often-impersonal high schools they typically attend, Werner says. "We're kind of going after the kids that get lost in between."

More specifically, he says, "what we're going for is ... 10 to 15 percent of all 9- to 14-year-olds in Boston. And doing it in a way that we're really helping them to be more successful and resourceful - like learning by doing and adding value to the community."

The approach apparently worked well with James Armstrong, a former student and current intern at Citizen Schools. When he first joined the program in sixth grade, he recalls how he often recoiled into a corner to finish homework, too shy to meet other students.

But different opportunities at Citizen Schools - such as the apprenticeship that had him explaining a map exhibit at the public library to thousands of visitors - gave James a sense of confidence and new skills. Then there was the chalkboard-size photo collage of him that Werner made and presented when James won an award.

James also says he got a lot out of the trip he took to the Midwest - his first plane ride - to discuss before several educators the need to integrate computer programs with Citizen Schools.

"I don't think John knows that I still have that poster in my room, but it meant a ton to me," says James, now in 11th grade. "If it weren't for Citizen Schools, I would have spent my afternoons watching TV, learning nothing, and being bored," he adds.

The next steps

To Werner, after-school programs are an important part of kids' education - and one that needs a new infusion of professionalism.

"This industry needs people to make a career in it," he says, rather than simply part-timers who may not take it seriously enough.

"There's a sense of urgency here, especially with all the high-stakes testing that's going on. We need to create a culture where these kids are really learning ... very specific skills."

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(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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