After twenty-plus years in business, Balson left the for-profit world to tackle a different challenge: ensuring every child has access to high quality education.
Balson joined the Citizen Schools national board in 2005, and served as board chair from 2010-2015. This year Balson accepted the role of Director Emeritus - a distinction shared by only one other former Board Chair, Sherif Nada. For the past year and a half, he has served as the CEO of Match Beyond – an innovative college completion program that aims to give all low-income students the ability to achieve economic freedom. He is committed to making sure every student receives a quality education, graduates, and find his or her way into a career that accesses the middle class. We continued an interview with Balson that appeared earlier this year on TheEditorial.com to capture his thinking about Citizen Schools, educational equity and the annual awarding of the Andrew Balson Leadership Award to two 8th grade graduates.
Why do you believe in Citizen Schools?
I have long believed in education’s importance in fulfilling the American Dream. I received a great education. I am a parent raising six kids who we hope are receiving great educations. I have spent 10 years on the board of Citizen Schools and five years at its Chair.
I have learned through my involvement in Citizen Schools that upper-income kids spend 300 more hours each year with adults than do the three million students in lower-income households. In addition, upper-income students benefit from almost $8,000 worth of enrichment activities yearly in robotics camps, piano lessons, academic tutoring and more.
That gap only grows once students matriculate into college. Less than 15% of low-income students in two-year college programs graduate and almost half of low-income students in a four-year degree drop out. This year alone, Citizen Schools has helped over 5,300 middle-school students across the US with programs to help our students narrow the achievement gap and be better prepared for college.
Through my experience at Citizen Schools and Match Beyond, I have seen the importance of education and the vast disparities that exist in educational opportunities in our country. Organizations like Citizen Schools and Match Beyond play critical roles in not only bridging the gaps in achievement and opportunity for our lower-income students, but also bridging the gaps that exists within our communities - connecting the students, families and corporations within the cities in which they live.
You’ve had a successful career in business. Why have you chosen to focus now on education?
I want to live in a country where everybody has a fair chance to access the American Dream. I want to live in a place where the accident of the zip code into which you were born doesn't determine your life outcome. Today, I don’t believe we all have a fair chance at the American Dream. I see it in so many ways in our society – for example, through all the angst around inequality. I see it at Citizen Schools, and I see it talking to students enrolled in Match Beyond who haven't have the same set of opportunities that my children have. It strikes me that the way to level the playing field is to provide robust educational and enrichment opportunities for all students. Education can be a pathway to greater social mobility and the economic ladder that's always been part of the American ethos.
Do you remember a specific moment when you were personally motivated to want to change the education gap?
I remember lots of moments. When we first moved to Boston, my wife, Melora, worked for a non-profit organization that was the vehicle through which AmeriCorps grants flowed into Massachusetts. She introduced me to terrific organizations like City Year and YouthBuild and ROCA that were helping young people. I started to get a picture, through her eyes, of what the world looked like for young people who didn't have the upbringing and opportunities that I had. Her influence on me was really profound.
Then in 2005, I became involved in Citizen Schools. I saw more of the challenges young people face through my work here. I've added a great deal of reading and talking with people, and think I have attained a balanced perspective on opportunity and education in America.
Citizen Schools lays the groundwork for the success of its students: our graduates are 20% more likely to graduate from high school and 48% more likely to enroll in college than matched peers from low-income communities. And they are graduating from middle school with the academic and social emotional skills required for navigating high school and college and thriving in the 21st century economy. Similarly, Match Beyond started with the idea that we needed to do more to ensure that students persisted in their post secondary pathways. Match Beyonds’ goal, beyond even helping students graduate from college, is to prepare students - no matter their background - to succeed in the twenty-first century workforce, by giving them the tools they need to build pathways to successful careers and lives.
Is Massachusetts the right place for this transformation in how we access education?
Massachusetts has this incredible combination: amazing entrepreneurial energy and really talented people who care a great deal and who want the world to be a better place. I think there's a cultural dimension to it. Maybe it goes back to the founding of the colonies? There's a sense of community in Boston, a sense of wanting to build a shining city on a hill. Much of the founding of our country happened here and, I think, the same sense of mission still exist.
The people of Citizen Schools reflect this tradition in Massachusetts: talent, energy and commitment to making our city, our state and our country a better place. I am so proud to be associated with such an incredible group of people who are making such an important difference in the world.
I’m also proud of the achievements of our students. Since 2014, I’ve had the honor of awarding the Andrew Balson Leadership Award annually to two students who have excelled in 8th Grade Academy - a cornerstone program at Citizen Schools that, in the crucial eighth grade year, reinforces core academic skills, develops character strengths and fosters positive mentor/peer relationships. The winners are selected by Citizen Schools’ AmeriCorps Teaching Fellows, based on the student’s demonstration of leadership, teamwork, perseverance, respect and joy.
This year’s recipients of the Andrew Balson Leadership Award, Kathy and Amarlyn, are two shining examples of these values. They are both three year veterans of Citizen Schools, and are both matriculating at great, local college-track high schools (Cathedral High and Malden Catholic respectively) with proven records of success and achievement.
The opportunities that the people of Citizen Schools have provided Kathy and Amarlyn and the hard work that Kathy and Amarlyn have put in to take advantage of those opportunities embody what can happen when we get education right. Kathy and Amarlyn are on their way to fulfilling their American dream. I hope we can provide the same chance to every student in America.