How Citizen Schools Helped My Student and My Family: A Parent's Story

This post was adapted from the speech that Koren Underdue, a Durham business owner and parent of a Citizen Schools student, delivered at the Expanding Opportunity event in Durham, North Carolina.  12814719703_78c8b624e6_z

Citizens Schools truly helps bridge the gap between our educational system and the real world. It teaches our young people (who I must remind you, are our future business leaders) skill sets that they may not necessarily learn in the classroom, and unfortunately, some not even at home. They focus on core success principles and values that our children can apply to every aspect of their lives. This program allows them to not just discover their dreams and aspirations, but achieve them at a much higher level than some could have ever imagined. As a parent, it is such an honor to share my story and my great experience with the Citizens Schools program in Durham, North Carolina.

I remember when my husband and I found out that we were getting a new addition to our family. No, it wasn’t a new baby; it was my first cousin’s daughter, Denaisha. My sweet, dear cousin had asked if we could help raise her 11-year-old at the time. Instantaneously, my husband and I said, "No problem," and we vowed we would care for her like she was our very own.

So in addition to our two small children, we now have a sixth grader. We thought, what are we going to do? (Side note: my biggest fear in raising kids is raising pre-teens and teenagers.)  On the other hand, I just had to imagine what she may have been going through as well. Imagine being a young girl and your life just went through a major transition. Having to move from New Jersey to North Carolina, having to obey and adhere to more rules than ever, and having to start a new school and make new friends – life could be hard.

To make a long story short, we had to enroll her at Neal Middle.  I remember when I first walked through those front doors; I noticed an informational table for Citizen Schools highlighting their previous year’s work and apprenticeship classes. I was so intrigued, and I immediately needed to know more about this program and how I could get my child involved. One thing is for sure, when we recognize a good thing, we jump on it and take advantage of it.


After one week of enrollment in Citizen Schools, we realized that this has been the best decision we made for her by far. Citizen Schools made her transition easy. It allowed her to have fun while learning. She was able to experience and learn about different cultures and walks of life. She was able to have another outlet that allowed her to be creative and expressive while finding innovative ways to expand her horizons.

This is my child’s second year in the program, and the results have been extraordinary. Since the program I have noticed vast changes in Denaisha’s academic and social life. There has been a boost in her confidence and self-esteem levels. She has developed strong leadership and presentation skills that have also contributed to her learning experience in the classroom and the list goes on.

However, now I realize that Citizen Schools is more than an after-school enrichment program, it’s an extension of our family. Just two weeks ago I lost my wonderful and amazing husband and father to my children due to sudden heart failure. During this time it has been extremely difficult for our family. But, I was determined to be here to show our love and appreciation to our Citizen Schools family because they have been a vital part to our family’s success, and also our healing process. Denaisha yearns for her afternoon time with this program, and I now also realize that Citizen Schools also serves as a safe haven for most of our children, including mine.

I am a proud advocate of Citizen Schools and will continue to support them the best way I know how. As a parent and business owner, I value their continued partnership in help raising our successful students to achieve greatness. They continue to add value not in just my child’s life, but our schools, and more importantly our communities. Thank you for your continued support to keep Citizens Schools alive and growing and contributing to our future leaders of America.




SAS Institute Employee Helps Students Make Real-World Connections

When Bill MacKrell, Sr. Solutions Architect at SAS Institute, arrives at Lowe’s Grove Middle School in Durham, North Carolina he is met with high fives and fist bumps from the students. Bill is not your average teacher. He volunteers as a “Citizen Teacher” with Citizen Schools, coming to Lowe’s Grove once a week to teach students topics they might not otherwise experience in middle school like financial literacy and project management. In their afternoon “apprenticeship” class taught by Bill and other Citizen Teachers, the students learn about careers and build real-world skills they will carry with them in high school, college, beyond. Although he had no prior teaching experience, Bill was excited to get involved in the community. When he heard about the work that Citizen Schools is doing to provide opportunities to low-income students in Durham, he jumped at the chance to sign up.

11403347343_fa20814216_bSince then, Bill has made a lasting impact on the middle schoolers at Lowe’s Grove, and we are proud to feature him as our volunteer Citizen Teacher of the month!

We asked him about his experience teaching with Citizen Schools…

1. What was your “Aha!” moment from the experience?

Last semester when we taught financial literacy, we took the students to a local financial services company. The employees acted as CEOs who needed financial advice, and our student financial advisers interviewed their “clients.” The students were all dressed up and behaved so professionally. They seemed so natural interviewing these executives and transformed into serious young professionals before our eyes.

At the end of the semester, the students gave their final presentation to their parents and teachers. As I watched I saw how the information we taught them had really sunk in. Sometimes I wondered if I was making a difference, but seeing them present made me realize how much they had learned.

2. Why do you think it's important to provide students with real-world, hands-on opportunities?

During the apprenticeship we talked about topics like debt. Even if they only remember part of it, that’s information they will need to use throughout their lives. Through this experience, the students are able to meet people and make connections they normally wouldn’t. They get the chance to learn about careers that they could have one day and see themselves actually having those jobs. The students like making those connections. When we volunteer and show up every week, the students see that there are more grownups who are not going to disappear and whom they can depend on. When they are having a bad day, they get excited to see us and know we’re not going to abandon them. I think those connections are so important.

3. What impact has this experience had on you?

I have loved this experience. It helped me grow both personally and professionally. Volunteering as a Citizen Teacher has helped me become a better communicator. You think you know something until you have to explain it to a middle school student. I’m used to talking to adults, but middle school students speak a different language. I’ve been blessed with so many opportunities in my life and it’s very rewarding to share some of what I’ve learned.

4. What advice would you give future volunteers?

Don’t be afraid to just jump in and do it! It’s such a powerful thing to do, and you get incredible support from the Citizen Schools staff and the other volunteers. At the end of the day you’ll feel like you’ve done something really important.

You can jump in and make a difference like Bill did by signing up to teach an apprenticeship. 

The Land of the Pine: North Carolina Regional Profile

The National Teaching Fellowship is the opportunity to serve middle school students through the expanded learning day in one of eight states.  This is the third of a regional series to profile each of our locations. “I've lived in New York and Washington, D.C., and North Carolina is my favorite place that I've ever lived.” –Zach Bradt, Teaching Fellow Class of ‘13

So you’re an ambitious, adventurous college senior about to set out on a path to career success.  As you consider The National Teaching Fellowship, consider this: North Carolina.

The Recruitment and Admissions Team sat down with North Carolina Operations Manager Sara-Kathryn Ferrell and second-year Teaching Fellow Zach Bradt on why the Fellowship is great down South...

Teaching Fellows at MLK Jr. Middle School

Southern Hospitality

The first year of the Fellowship is tough.  You will learn how to not only instruct students, but also how to communicate with corporate volunteers and project manage.  All Citizen Schools regions will support you, but the advantage of working in North Carolina is having a smaller team and friendly citizens.  Operations Manager Sara-Kathryn Ferrell says Teaching Fellows have more of an opportunity to take leadership and regional roles. Currently serving Teaching Fellow Zach Bradt adds that after school hours, Fellows can be found at a local baseball game, going out to dinner, or just hanging out on the weekends.

Student Speakers at the NASCAR Hall of Fame

A Life Between Weekdays

Because the cost of living in North Carolina is relatively low, Teaching Fellows are able to enjoy activities that range from sporting events to day trips to the coast. Charlotte and Durham both offer unique and fun atmospheres. Charlotte is home to professional teams in football and basketball, a National Whitewater Center, an Uptown nightlife, and is home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Durham is in the heart of Tobacco Road college basketball and has a famous minor league baseball team, the Durham Bulls. The neighboring cities of Raleigh and Chapel Hill also offer sporting events, concerts and delicious barbecue. Whether in Charlotte or Durham, both cities are a few hours away from the mountains or the beach.

Mountains AND Beach?  Hikers and Swimmers, Rejoice!

Indeed.  Again, low-cost outdoor entertainment is readily available in North Carolina.  Mountain-wise, North Carolina is home to Mount Mitchell, which is the tallest mountain in the Eastern United States, and the Blue Ridge Mountains.  You could even visit where part of “The Hunger Games” was filmed in the Pisgah National Forest.  Beach-wise, Wrightsville Beach near Wilmington is not far.  Wilmington, or “Filmington,” is where the famous television series of “Dawson’s Creek” and “One Tree Hill” were filmed.

EMC Apprenticeship at Lowe's Grove Middle School

Notable Partners

North Carolina has strong partnerships with University of North Carolina at Charlotte, EMC, Cisco and the Environmental Protection Agency.  Apprenticeships this semester even include one called “Pet Responsibility” where a member of the Charlotte Police Department brings in their canine companion and is teaching the students about how to properly care for a pet. Another notable one is "MAD Science" where students make cell phone applications, collect data and analyze the results.

So if you like friendly people, great barbecue and a comfortable cost of living, consider North Carolina.

The next deadline to apply for the National Teaching Fellowship is March 18. Apply here today! 

Volunteering and Beyond

Citizen Schools has the most incredible volunteers. These dedicated Citizen Teachers commit to leading an apprenticeship class one afternoon per week for ten weeks. They plan field trips, bring in guest speakers and create incredible opportunities for middle school kids across the country. As if that wasn't enough, many of our volunteers have gone above and beyond the call of duty-- recruiting their friends and colleagues to teach apprenticeships, donating supplies and money, and advocating for Citizen Schools in state and local governments.

We asked Citizen Teacher and Citizen Schools supporter Megan De Porter Zeishner from Cisco Sytems why she supports Citizen Schools. Her responses are inspiring...

Name: Megan De Porter Zeishner

Company: Cisco Systems, Reseach Triangle Park, North Carolina

Citizen Schools Location: Durham, North Carolina

Name of apprenticeship: Girls U.N.I.T.E (Understanding Needs In Third World Education)

Campus: Neal Middle School


1. How many years have you been involved with Citizen Schools? 

I have been recruiting Cisco employees located at our RTP campus to volunteer with Citizen Schools for 1.5 years. This fall semester is the first semester I have taught with Citizen Schools.

2. Why did you decide to teach an apprenticeship this semester?

I have been very impressed with the Citizen Schools staff, students and volunteers from day one. I knew right away that I wanted to be involved in the classroom and this fall semester the right opportunity presented itself. A colleague of mine, Jan Pigeon, had volunteered to teach a girls advocacy and fundraising class which are topics that I have an interest and experience in. So I jumped at the chance to support her for the semester. 

3. What else are you doing to stay involved with Citizen Schools outside of teaching?

As the Community Relations Program Manager for Cisco RTP, I support Citizen Schools throughout the year by hosting information sessions at Cisco for potential volunteers, educating our employees on the national partnership that Citizen Schools and Cisco has developed, assisting with monetary and product grants to Citizen Schools (Citizen Schools of NC was awarded a $45,000 grant during the last granting cycle.) Beyond my job, I am a constant advocate for the program. 

4. What was your WOW! moment from this semester?

There were several moments throughout the year that made me say, "wow." But the most recent was during rehearsals for the end-of-the-year WOW! event. I was so impressed as I watched our students take the stage and not only teach back what they learned over the past 10 weeks, but teach what was important to them, what they felt was impactful and with great confidence. It was a wonderful moment. Check out our blog at http://girlsuniteatneal.blogspot.com/

We are so thankful for volunteers like Megan who make a real difference in the lives of students in their communities. Every semester we get closer to closing the opportunity gap in America thanks to the leadership, commitment and support from thousands of Citizen Teachers. This spring you can join the ranks of America's best volunteers. Sign up to teach an apprenticeship. You can also get involved beyond the classroom by supporting Citizen Schools with a donation. 

From Teaching Fellow to Dream Job

Sarah Rabiner is a former Teaching Fellow from Durham, North Carolina. She completed her fellowship at Lowe's Grove Middle School in June of 2012 and currently works for a research company. The first application deadline for the National Teaching Fellowship is October, 29th 2012. After two years of serving as a National Teaching Fellow, people began to ask me the natural question, what’s next? For me, it was landing a dream job as a Research Specialist at Innovation, Research and Training in Durham, North Carolina.

I am currently developing a curriculum for the National Institute on Drug Abuse that develops social-emotional learning skills. The curriculum is to be taught to third to fifth graders in the after school hours.

As project coordinator for this effort, I oversee the planning, writing and evaluating of each lesson, including running a national evaluation study of the program, and a randomized control trial to determine the program’s effectiveness. It is a challenging, demanding role for a young professional, but I’m already having a lot of success because of something no one else in my office has; the experience as a National Teaching Fellow. It has made all the difference.

I am a product of the Durham Public Schools system. As an undergraduate studying sociology and public policy, I developed a desire to work with under-represented youth in my community. When I heard about Citizen Schools and the fellowship, I saw it as an opportunity to make that happen. It would allow me to work directly with under-served youth in Durham, and would also expose me to policy and nonprofit management. It was a perfect fit.

Early on in the fellowship I realized that I didn't want to become a classroom teacher. But I was really passionate about working with the kids. It was during my second year that I made a profound discovery about myself.

I took notice of some pretty tough developmental, social and emotional issues that my students were dealing with, and how those issues played into their peer interactions. It raised questions for me that I want to spend the rest of my career answering. That interest grew 100% by working with the kids in my classroom.

The amount of professional development and support that I experienced at Citizen Schools is unlike anything that I've experienced before or since. I developed skills in communication, collaboration, prioritization and, most importantly, learned how to work and share space with people from all backgrounds and opinions.

There are so many buckets of skills that are important to long term professional success and career satisfaction that I was exposed to in an intensive way during the fellowship. The thing that stuck with me most—and that I actually said in job interviews after the fellowship— is that I know exactly what it feels like to not have something go as planned and still be successful. After all, if you can engage a group of adolescents (after a hornet flew in through the window, or a child tried to climb out of the window) you can do anything.

For me, the fellowship was an amazing opportunity for growth. It’s very humbling putting the needs of others before yourself which is not necessarily first nature for someone right out of college. By devoting so much of your energy to improving the lives of youth, your sense of self and your values really do shift and develop. The transformation that happens when you focus on improving the opportunities for the kids you grow to care about is a profound growth experience.

Upon reflecting on the two years I spent as a teaching fellow, I have one piece of advice for recent college graduates who are considering embarking on this journey. You have to keep your eyes and your mind open to really take advantage of this amazing opportunity. You might not realize when you’re in it just how profound it is.

The National Teaching Fellowship changes the lives of middle school students across across the country. It can also change yours. Apply today.