The City as Classroom

The City as Classroom


Written by: Megan Bird, Executive Director of Citizen Schools Massachusetts and Arthur Pearson, President and CEO of Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center

As summer’s blaze softens into autumn hues, our city’s children are back in the schoolhouse. For many students in the Boston Public Schools, summer was more productive, inspirational and fun than they expected. This is thanks to citywide work to replace traditional summer school with creative and research-based summer learning, as well as a growing commitment in Boston to ensure all students, regardless of family income, access a wide range of summer activities.

As community organizations partnering to support the school district, we believe that this important attention to preventing “summer slide” must be expanded to preventing “school year skid,” when students with tremendous potential come up against the reality of limited opportunity. This skid, commonly called the opportunity gap, is well documented nationally: By age 12, students from low-income families benefit from 6,000 fewer hours of learning outside the classroom than their peers from middle- and upper-income families.

Opportunities often unavailable to low-income students include internships, music lessons, team sports, tutoring, museums visits, language classes, and science competitions. For more privileged students, what happens in school pales in comparison to what they are able to learn outside, often in turn reinforcing their academics and ensuring that they build critical college and career readiness skills.

The whole city can be a classroom, all of us aligned around a shared commitment to educating our children – in the schools; community programs; civic, open and cultural spaces; and on our college campuses. In Boston, learning need not be bound by place, time of day or season of the year. Schools need true partners who integrate into school life and bring students out into the community. As partners, we must be able to demonstrate both academic and social-emotional learning results.

At Thompson Island Outward Bound, this partnership with the school district means coordinating island science curriculum with that of BPS, working with students in the school before and after they visit the island, and running extensive summer learning programs where students benefit from BPS and Outward Bound co-teachers. Students who arrive on the island with the lowest interest in science not only find their interest piqued and their academic performance improving; they also demonstrate a 37% increase in critical thinking and a 32% increase in perseverance.

At Citizen Schools, middle-schoolers participate in 10-week apprenticeships that take place in and outside the school building, pairing them with experts to learn about careers in robotics, the law, science, medicine, and publishing. Students demonstrate increased engagement in school and improved academic achievement. Participating students are also 25% more likely to enroll in college than their peers around the country.

Under the leadership of Mayor Walsh, Superintendent Chang, and a network of non-profits brought together through Boston After School and Beyond, the city has seen a dramatic increase in student learning outside the classroom. This summer alone, Boston served over 11,000 students in immersive summer learning programs, a 71% increase over two years ago. But there is more work to be done, year-round, to ensure opportunity for those with deep potential who might otherwise be left behind. Students like Jose Melo who participated in Citizen Schools STEM apprenticeships at the McCormack Middle School. This early exposure inspired Jose to apply for a summer internship at Biogen. Jose plans to pursue biotech engineering for his career.

J’Saun Bastien, a Boston Green Academy graduate, describes how his lessons over six years on Thompson Island brought out the strength he knew was somewhere inside; he moved from being a painfully shy C-student to an island leader and an A-student who led his high school track team, then got accepted to nine colleges. J’Saun enters Boston College this month.

With the entire city as a classroom, Boston will hasten the closing of opportunity and achievement gaps. So we encourage parents who are choosing schools to ask about the kinds of partnerships the school has in the community. We encourage business leaders to expand internships for middle and high school students from low-income communities, and invest in results-driven non-profits identified by the school system as effective partners.

Boston is on the cutting edge of expanding what learning looks like. It will take us all.

Written by: Megan Bird, Executive Director of Citizen Schools Massachusetts and Arthur Pearson, President and CEO of Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center