Lessons From Year One as CEO: Our Role in the Education Sector

Boston Herald staff photo by John Wilcox (Roxbury, MA 01/18/17)
Boston Herald staff photo by John Wilcox (Roxbury, MA 01/18/17)

Winter marks a set of important anniversaries for Citizen Schools:  the anniversary of our incorporation on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1995;  the anniversary of Black History Month, which offers the country an important reminder of the perseverance and resilience necessary to forge a more just and equitable society; and, now, my first year anniversary as our CEO.  I am proud to stand on the shoulders of giants in fulfilling our mission to close opportunity gaps to restore economic mobility in this country - and every student’s shot at the American Dream.  

I had the chance to celebrate all three of these milestones in my favorite way - with our kids.  I participated in our annual interview day with our 8th Grade students at the Orchard Gardens School in Boston, alongside over 60 General Electric volunteers.  These days are designed to support 8th graders in their preparation for the high school application process in Boston.   I wrapped the afternoon in discussion a confident young girl with bright eyes and a penchant for painting. I asked her how others would describe her.  She was quick to respond.  “I am a hard working, strong leader.”   “What makes you strong?” I asked.  “Loss,” she said. “I have lost a lot in my life - a lot of people and things - but every challenge builds strength.  I am 13 now and one of the strongest people I know.”

It is with this mindset that we have approached this last year -  one of the most violent and divisive in recent memory.  Political election marked by dislocation; cities bruised by battles between black and blue lives.  For our students, for whom adolescence is already a confusing time, this was particularly hard terrain to navigate.  And for our staff, one third of whom are AmeriCorps service members, this was a year that tested their faith in democracy.  But, each day, alongside our amazing volunteers, they delivered inspiration for our students, chipping away at the opportunity gap .

It is from their example that I have drawn three lessons about my leadership and Citizen Schools’ role in the education sector:

  1. Lead with your values: educational equity, social justice and economic mobility

Citizen Schools is, by definition, an action tank, meaning that we both deliver service directly to students (action) AND seek to influence education policy through advocacy efforts at the state and federal level (think tank).  Most importantly, we are a tireless champion for our students and communities, and will fight to uphold the values of social justice, equality, hope, and service.  For us, that means embodying these values in our work.  It also means partnering with coalitions such as America Forward, Opportunity Nation and Voices for National Service to advocate for policies that address the needs of the students and communities we proudly serve - communities that include immigrants and refugees.   We have linked arms with hundreds of social entrepreneurs to support DACA and oppose policies that imperil our students’ safety and access to opportunity.  We believe this show of solidarity is an excellent way to amplify our values and our voice.

  1. Educate the whole child

We recently shared the results of our most recent evaluation study led by Abt Associates.  Abt concluded that, while Citizen Schools model was closing academic achievement gaps in math and English, it had a unique ability to influence students’ social emotional mindsets and skills.  While this si not something we actively evaluated in this study, it is consistent with the beliefs we have held, since inception, that students’ ability to communicate, think critically, work in teams, problem solve and set goals were skills critical to their success in high school, college and career.  We are redoubling our efforts to measure student growth on these dimensions and the role our hands-on, project based learning with experts can play.  We are honored to partner closely with organizations like TransformEd, the Aspen Institute's National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development and the Buck Institute for Education to further hone our approach and evaluate student outcomes.

  1. Innovate on the model to re-imagine education

Of all the work we do, I am most proud of the innovation our staff and volunteers model on a daily basis.  They find new ways to engage with our students and build the skills critical to their long term success.  And in this spirit, we have spent the past year examining our approach to determine what elements of our model drive the social, emotional and academic outcomes we seek.  This search has led us squarely back to the place where Citizen Schools began - the apprenticeship.  This is the part of our model that is most inspiring for kids, most compelling for adults and most consonant with the deeper learning approach espoused by leading educators.  In an effort to broaden access to this opportunity, we are partnering with schools and teachers to explore how apprenticeships could transform the traditional school-day classroom.  We’ll launch a formal pilot in fall 2017.

Like our students, we celebrate our anniversaries bursting with pride, potential and a resolve to build strength in the face of challenge.  And we are reflecting on the lessons we have learned over the last  20 years to inform our work over the next twenty.  Our nation is changing in ways we may not have predicted.  But our goal at Citizen Schools remains constant:  to ensure that every child has the opportunity to explore, discover and invent... and to build the skills necessary to thrive as students and succeed as adults.