AmeriCorps Member Spotlight: Brittney Davis

"You must do that thing you think you cannot do.” I berate myself for my fear it’s too late I’m here in front of 30 young minds, it’s time they’re ready for me to cultivate to support to relate to help push them through. I step into the class, visions of winners, of champions, before me: let’s begin.

Celebrate Ahmed Elsayed as the June Citizen Teacher of the Month!

Citizen Teachers Volunteer Citizen Teachers pair their personal passions with their expertise when teaching apprenticeships, helping to foster student excitement around new areas of study and future possibilities.

This spring, Ahmed Elsayed of Hikvision paired his enthusiasm for alternative energy with his engineering skills to teach an apprenticeship on alternative energy vehicles to students at Chase Elementary School in Chicago, IL. Students spent ten weeks learning about different ways to fuel and design a vehicle. At the final presentation, called a “WOW!”, students presented their designs for a car that used alternative energy. The apprenticeship was provided through a new partnership with Hikvision fostered through the leadership of Anna Boudinot, Content Manager.

“Hikvision is growing fast in the U.S. We’re in the process of creating the identity of the company here,” shared Anna. “One important element we wanted as part of our growth is to create an environment supporting employees who want to give back the community. As a tech company, we wanted to team up with a non-profit dedicated to STEM education. The U.S. is lagging behind in this field and can’t address the growing need for people with training in STEM within the U.S. I started doing some research and came across Citizen Schools. I reached out to Hikvision employees and presented Citizen Schools at a national sales meeting to find interest.”

Students with Ahmed and Frank

Ahmed approached Anna, who was looking for a way to share his passions. “I always wanted to volunteer in the community and it was exciting to hear Anna was moving Hikvision in that direction,” said Ahmed. “I’m a huge proponent of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels and getting into renewable energy. I do it at home and really wanted to pass it off in the classroom, as well as pass on my knowledge of electrical engineering.”

Join us in congratulating Ahmed Elsayed as our Citizen Teacher of the Month!

Why do you volunteer as a Citizen Teacher?

“I want to share my skills and give back. There have been people in my life that have gone out of their way for me. One person in particular is my father. He was a mechanical engineer and growing up we always did projects. I got in trouble for taking stuff apart and not always putting them back together. Our transmission was being reassembled in the kitchen one time and while putting it back we forgot the reverse. He was always a self-sustaining type of person and that helped launch my interest in engineering.

Has being a Citizen Teacher changed you?

“It’s made me want to get more involved. During the WOW! it was really cool to see how much the students had learned and to see them explain it to others.”

What is your favorite “aha” or “WOW!” moment from the semester?

“There was a group of girls really shy and reluctant to engage. One of the activities was building a structure that could hold the most weight. They didn’t really want to do it. We talked about what they could use as materials and I shared that anything that was on the desk could be used. That included chopsticks, tape, and rubber bands. The girls really thought outside the box because they ended up using the tape dispenser itself as a stand. That was their WOW moment. They ended up winning the design challenge. They realized that they could do it and after that moment they were much more involved and successful.

The two girls that were the most involved were very different from each other. One of them was the quietest girl in the class and she rocked it. The other was very high-energy. To see her take that energy and rechannel it into giving a very detailed explanation of how hydrogen cars work was pretty mind-blowing. It was awesome to see them explain it to Anna at the WOW!.”

Volunteer Card Ahmed

What is your favorite way to connect with students?

“My favorite is through hands-on design exercises. That’s the way I connect with my son. We’ll build birdhouses. When you hand them the tool, that builds the trust that builds the bond. Giving a student a little more responsibility and trusting them with it solidifies that trust, that bond.”

What advice do you have for new Citizen Teachers?

“Patience. That is a big one.

The kids come from all walks of life. Patience is the one I had to learn.  Find ways to keep an open mind, think outside of the box, and create ways to make the lessons fun.

The response was always the best when you could come up with an activity that involved them instead of standing up in front of the room and lecturing. Give very clear instructions and something that allows them to choose what they want.”

Anna had the chance to visit Ahmed’s WOW! and shared the following:

“What blew my mind was going to the WOW!, meeting the students in person, and having them explain the technology behind alternative energy vehicles. The students talked about the benefits and disadvantages and when these cars could hit the market. They were little encyclopedias. I asked them if they had known anything about alternative energy before starting the class and they said ‘nope.’ It was amazing what information they could soak up in the 10 week timespan.

I was thrilled to see the female students engaged in learning about STEM. I hope that the opportunity these girls received in the classroom taught them they are as equally capable as the males.”

Creating a Personal Brand with Brenda Williams, the Citizen Teacher of the Month Providing students, particularly at the middle school level, with exposure to different professions and direction for thinking about their future is critical to preparing them for success in school and beyond. This is Brenda Williams’ goal every semester when she teaches “My Guided Personal Story” to male students at Carter G. Woodson Elementary School in Chicago, IL. With 25 years of experience as a business strategist, Brenda knows what it takes to create a compelling personal brand.

She teaches students to be the CEOs of their lives. “My Guided Personal Story (myGPS) provides a structure for the students to think about their talents, values, and dreams to ultimately tell an interesting story about themselves and who they are. The story effectively communicates who they are and where they want to be in five years,” said Brenda.

This month we celebrate Brenda as the Citizen Teacher of the Month for her passionate effort to prepare students for a successful future.

Meet Brenda...

How did you create My Guided Personal Story?

“Being a strategic planner is all about projecting a vision. I want to make sure students have something they created on their own, to remind themselves of the great young men they want to be and think about the paths they need to take to get there. It helps them to create a vision for an inspired future and think about the steps necessary to further their dreams.

Your brand begins in your mind. It’s not easy because many kids face challenges on a daily basis. They need a place in their heart and mind where they can go that says ‘I see the rainbow. I see a promising future for myself.’”

How have you seen the apprenticeship impact students?

“It’s introspective, immersive, and highly expressive. They have to use language they don’t necessarily use everyday. I work to get them a place where they can talk about themselves comfortably. We talk about how it’s okay to be vulnerable. We’ve been able to find out a lot about their lives and find out why they are the way they are.

I make them stand in their truth by getting them to describe themselves and their interests. If you want people to believe you, you have to stand strong in your truth and make people see you for who you are.

They talk to their family and friends about vision boards they create for a personal commercial. The commercial focuses on the statement: ‘This is who I am, this is what I stand for. This is my dream and this is what I want to be.’ They can keep it on their phones and easily go back to remind themselves during difficult situations.

What’s one of your favorite “aha” or “wow” moments?

“When I came back from my Citizen Teacher training, one of my former students ran up to me and said ‘I got my report card! You have to see it! I’m talking A’s and B’s. I got myself together Miss Brenda, I got myself together this time. myGPS helped me do this.’ I felt very, very fulfilled thinking about this. If you can get at least one student to move the needle that is success.

My second favorite moment is when I was starting my new course. It went from eight boys to 18 boys. The word got out and I thought it would be difficult, but three students even repeated the class. I’m not a pushover and thought they would find the apprenticeship difficult because of it. One of the students asked, ‘Miss Brenda, can I stand up and tell everyone how myGPS has changed my life?’ He stood up and did more than I could ever do for a class. He did a testimony for myGPS. It was one of those moments where I’m thinking ‘He’s got it. He gets it.’”

What advice do you have for other volunteers?

“Teaching middle school students is a lot more difficult than dealing with corporate executives. Success is defined differently. If we get one or two students to the next level in the lesson, that’s success. You have to adjust your communication to make sure you’re speaking to them at their level.

It’s not easy. This is the most challenging and rewarding thing I’ve done. I got out there to be a contributor in hopes of moving the needle and I found out how hard it is. It made me a lot more empathetic and gave me a greater understanding. Utilizing tools and suggestions from Citizen Schools’ campus staff helped me reach the students more effectively and manage their classroom behavior, which can be challenging at times.”

Why should people volunteer to teach students?

“It helps kids understand why it’s important to go to school. There are a lot of interesting careers that they had never heard of before my class. By teaching them we are opening their worlds to different roles and are fortifying their experience with what goes on in the real-world. That kind of exposure is important. Many people are looking for ways to give back but spend a lot of time working or having hobbies that are really important to them. They don’t often realize that giving back can be sharing our experiences, knowledge, and passions with kids.

Kids are the future, and people who want to cultivate and shape the future should be involved with kids. If you need structure, Citizen Schools will give you that. I think it’s a wonderful way to contribute to the future of our society in way that makes you feel good.”

PRESS RELEASE: Hikvision and Citizen Schools Provide STEM Education to Students in Need

Hikvision and Citizen Schools Provide STEM Education to Students in Need

City of Industry, CA – May 26, 2015 – HikvisionÒ USA, North America’s leading provider of innovative, award-winning video surveillance products and solutions, has teamed up with Citizen Schools, a national nonprofit organization that partners with middle schools to expand the learning day for children in low-income communities.

Hikvision volunteers provided hands-on classroom opportunities for middle school students at Chase Elementary in Chicago, where the students learned about engineering design and built alternative energy vehicles. The ten-week semester culminated in a “WOW! Event” this month where students taught back what they learned to teachers, parents, and community members. As a technology leader, Hikvision is dedicated to supporting opportunities for STEM-based education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) across North America.

Citizen Schools, which is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year, has a rich history of enabling public middle schools in low-income communities to provide a longer learning day with enrichment opportunities for students. Volunteers called “Citizen Teachers” visit the classroom in the extended day each week to engage the students in activities they would not otherwise be able to participate in during the school day. Students gain knowledge in topics ranging from journalism to astronomy, leading toward what Citizen Schools CEO Steven Rothstein refers to as a “moment of discovery.”

“Igniting a moment of discovery means that the students feel empowered,” Mr. Rothstein said. “They build something: the rocket flies, they’ve cooked something for the first time, their financial plan shows how they could potentially afford to go to college. These opportunities are crucial for students in many urban areas around the country. By the time they have reached 6th grade, they typically receive 6000 fewer hours of academic and personal enrichment opportunities than students in higher-income communities.”

Citizen Teachers from Hikvision taught an engineering design course at Chase Elementary where the students built structures and vehicles, tested their load-bearing capacity, and then transferred that knowledge into an understanding of how alternative energy vehicles operate and how they will affect our society in the future.

“Coming into the classroom every week and seeing how excited the students got about what they were learning was an incredible experience,” remarked Ahmed Elsayed, a sales engineer for Hikvision USA who volunteered at Chase. “Their desire for knowledge was palpable and I’m proud to be part of a program that fostered that.”

In addition to volunteer hours spent in the classroom, Hikvision also made a financial donation to provide classroom supplies.

“As a forward-thinking technology leader, Hikvision understands that the next generation of scientists and engineers are sitting in our middle school classrooms today,” stated Jeffrey He, president of Hikvision USA and Hikvision Canada. “Educating these students so they can realize their full potential will lead to a more robust workforce and a broader landscape for the STEM-based industries of the future. Hikvision is honored to play a part in facilitating this fundamental conveyance of knowledge.”

To learn more about Citizen Schools, visit

For more information about Hikvision, visit booth 822 at the Electronic Security Expo (ESX), June 24-28, at the Baltimore Convention Center, or go to

About Hikvision

Hikvision is the world’s largest supplier of video surveillance products and solutions. The company specializes in innovative video surveillance technology, as well as designing and manufacturing a full line of innovative CCTV and video surveillance products. Hikvision possesses the industry’s largest R&D team and state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities; both allow Hikvision’s customers the benefit of world-class products that are designed with cutting-edge technology. Hikvision USA is a subsidiary of Hikvision Digital Technology Co., Ltd.

About Citizen Schools

Citizen Schools is a national nonprofit organization that partners with middle schools to expand the learning day for children in low-income communities. Citizen Schools mobilizes a team of AmeriCorps educators and volunteer “Citizen Teachers” to teach real-world learning projects and provide academic support in order to help all students discover and achieve their dreams.


Media contact:

Alex Asnovich, Director of Marketing, Hikvision USA


Blending Learning Pilots Take Off with Cisco Foundation and MIND Research Institute

st math photo 3Meeting every student’s academic needs in the classroom can be challenging but is essential to their success. Many of the public middle schools Citizen Schools partners with are reaching students who are academically all over the map, with many falling below grade level. In order to provide customized support to the highest-need students, we began “blended learning” pilots this year focused on core math instruction. Blended learning, which pairs computer-aided instruction with face-to-face classroom methods, enables Citizen Schools’ staff in four pilot programs across the country to offer more personalized and more efficient academic support during the expanded learning day. Partnered with Cisco Foundation and MIND Research Institute, the blending learning math program utilizes Spatial-Temporal (ST) Math instructional software to focus on improving students’ math skills, with the aim of increasing student proficiency for long-term success.

st math photo 2Launched this September, over 350 students are utilizing the ST Math instructional software at four schools across the country. And after 3 months of implementing the pilots, the initial feedback and support from our school partners is positive.

At Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Roxbury, MA, Citizen Schools’ staff members are collaborating with teachers throughout the whole school day to align ST Math with the scope and sequence of their school day math lessons. The head of Orchard Gardens’ math department shared, “ST Math is a great tool and resource. It will be effective when used to review and practice what is being done in class".

On the other side of the country in Oakland, CA, Greenleaf Academy requested to expand and integrate the software for a small group of 5th graders after implementing it successfully with 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.

st math photo 1In East Palo Alto, CA, partner school Cesar Chavez Academy, developed a special “small group” learning environment to offer additional time for English Language Learners who cannot access instruction as easily because of language barriers. Ricardo Benavidez, Community Relations Manager with Cisco, recently visited this school and commented, “With ST Math, students play animated games designed to increase math comprehension and proficiency while promoting student persistence and self-confidence to solve problems.”

Through pilots like ST Math and partnerships with organizations like Cisco and MIND Research Institute, Citizen Schools is able to provide customized learning experiences for students at all levels, ensuring they’re armed with the knowledge needed to succeed in high school, college, and the 21st century workforce.


A Full Circle Experience: Volunteering in Her Community

Ever since she was 14 years old, Neha Mehra knew that one day she would go back to Chicago Public Schools and help students like herself. Now a successful account manager at Groupon, she has found a way-- teaching an apprenticeship class to middle school students through the Citizen Schools program at Walsh Elementary School.

411023_3546703423735_412733372_o (1)As a proud graduate of the Chicago public school system, she saw the effects of the opportunity gap first-hand, an experience that stuck with her. “Education is a cause near and dear to my heart. There is a gap that I am passionate about closing,” she said. That passion led her to Citizen Schools, where she is teaching her second apprenticeship class to middle schools. Both the “Runway” and “Beautiful Girls” curricula are designed to help young girls develop the confidence and beliefs they need to be successful in school and beyond. She takes the time to connect with each student, helping them navigate difficult issues such as body image.

Neha’s dedication to the students is not confined to the classroom walls. She works tirelessly to get her fellow co-workers involved in the mission. With her leadership, students in Chicago are getting the access and opportunities they need to help close the gaps between them and a successful future. We are pleased to recognize Neha as our November 2013 Citizen Teacher of the Month!

Meet Neha Mehra:

Why did you choose to teach the “Beautiful Girls” apprenticeship?

It blows my mind how self conscious girls are at a young age. Middle school is such an important time-- having to bring grades up, and get ready to apply to high schools. But some girls are really stressed out with body image issues. It made me sad to see that get in the way of their success. I think it’s important to empower and help them explore their opportunities.

What is your biggest WOW! moment so far?

Last spring, during the “Runway” apprenticeship, one of our students really came out of her shell. She was sweet, but definitely tough and did not want to participate. My co-teachers and I would try to force her to participate by asking her direct questions, and make her reflect on the questions. We wouldn’t let her get away with not participating. We knew she was interested deep down, we could see it on her face, so we didn’t give up on her. At the fashion show at Groupon, she came out and strutted down the runway, struck a pose, and even did a dance too. The catwalk can be very intimidating, but she was just smiling the whole time. She even gave me a note saying that she was thankful for the class--that made the whole experience worth it.

What is it like volunteering in the district where you attended school?

It’s such a good feeling coming back and helping in my alma-mater district. I feel like I’m helping my own kids. I have vowed to send my own children to Chicago public schools. Citizen Schools is a refreshing approach of bringing people in from the greater community to help young students build a future for themselves. It takes everyday people to open eyes to the issues and make a difference.

What advice would you give people considering being a Citizen Teacher?

Anyone out there that is thinking or debating about teaching, get a big group of people from your office and teach together. Get out there, into your community. If you want to make a difference, this is the way to do it. Getting out there is powerful, and will promote more change than you think.

You can get out there and make a real impact on your community by signing up to teach an apprenticeship. You might be our next Citizen Teacher of the month!

Making an Impact in Chicago Public Schools

Jenny Methling is a Strategy Manager at AOL and a Citzen Schools Illinois Citizen Teacher. This post was originally published on the Huffington Post Chicago Impact Blog.  AOL has partnered with Citizen Schools in communities around New York City and Boston, and this is the program's first year in Chicago, so several of us in the AOL Chicago office jumped at the chance to join in on the fun! Growing up, I always said I wanted to be teacher, but my hopes and dreams have changed a lot along the way. However, I love working with kids and a little part of me still has the desire to teach. Being a part of Citizen Schools has allowed me to reignite that passion, and it has come with some major payoffs.

AOL has two groups teaching at two different Chicago area public schools, and I've had the privilege of teaching and mentoring the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade kids in the "apprenticeship" program at Cesar Chavez in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.

Both groups are teaching "Brand You," an apprenticeship where students learn about the basics of branding and how to build your personal brand. Whereas a lot of kids in the U.S. prepare to apply for college in high school, these kids actually have to apply to high schools, so learning how to build your own brand is of importance at an earlier age.

Also, English is a second language to a lot of the kids, so teaching them new vocabulary words has also been a focus. It has been so cool to see the students grasp the concepts and use the vocabulary words that we've taught them. They are essentially learning the branding basics that I learned in my first two years of college -- and some of these kids are 12!

There is really no better way to describe the experience than saying it's super cool -- plain and simple. I spend two hours with these students every week, but it's amazing what they remember and how serious they take it. These kids are at school early in the morning until the early evening, but they got to choose to be in the Brand You apprenticeship, and you can tell how much they enjoy it.

I expected that they might build their personal brands as if they were applying for high school, college, or a typical teenage job, but these kids have some high aspirations and expectations for themselves -- which is awesome. They are so creative, and I hope they all pursue their hopes on the career front. There are kids that want to be baseball players, soccer players, video game developers, product developers at Lego, teachers, social workers, and police officers, and I hope they are all successful in becoming those things, because I honestly think they would all be great at their respective professions.

It's imperative that kids this age in low-income communities have programs like Citizen Schools -- it's surprising how early kids decide whether or not they will go to college or even complete high school. I wish I would have had a program like Citizen Schools when I was their age, just to get a glimpse of the real working world and seeing the payoff of a good education. I do hope that exposing these kids to young, successful professionals and bringing them to AOL's downtown office has encouraged them to stay focused on school and their future careers. I wish them all the best of luck and hope to see a few of them as future AOL employees!

Reflections from 2012

Eric Schwarz is the Co-Founder and CEO of Citizen Schools. 2012 began with numerous trips to Chicago, where I visited a school across the street from the United Center (where the Bulls play), took the El, had several cold (and yes "Windy") walks down Michigan Avenue, and got to know a great Italian restaurant at O’Hare airport. The year also saw an increased Citizen Schools focus on STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math), cool partnerships with the White House on several STEM projects, the addition of new corporate partners and board members, and some impressive impact results.

It’s been an exciting year with lots to celebrate, so as we enter this holiday season I want to say thank you to everyone who makes Citizen Schools such a special place, and such a force for expanded opportunity.

1. Launches.

All of those trips to Chicago led to the Citizen Schools expansion to Illinois where we now provide programming at two partner schools-- one in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, and one in Pilsen/Little Village. Chicago organizations such as A Better Chicago, AOL, MB Financial, Deloitte, Google, Cognizant, Cisco and United Airlines embraced our mission, stepping out of the office and into the classroom to impact public education.

Continuing down that road of new beginnings, in October we launched a bold three-year initiative called Catalyst, which will mobilize 7,500 professionals in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields to lead apprenticeships in middle schools across the country. With support from partners Google, Cognizant and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, thousands of students will be able to experience a catalyst moment– that spark of discovery that ignites a lasting passion for learning. As the need for improvement in STEM education becomes increasingly apparent, Citizen Schools is at the forefront of impacting systemic change, working closely with the White House to replicate our Citizen Teacher and Teaching Fellow models.

2. Partnerships.

This fall we welcomed a new National Leadership Partner, the Walmart Foundation. Their investment will help us reach even more students and boost achievement in reading and math over the next two years. Walmart has a deep commitment to improving education in America, donating more than $50 million to fund education initiatives in 2011.

In November, Citizen Schools was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a top applicant in the Investing in Innovation (i3) Competition. This recognition speaks to the growing belief in our ELT model and demonstrates the powerful impact of private-public partnerships on education. Pending a 15% match from the private sector this $3 million grant will jump start momentum for the Catalyst Initiative.

This year we also witnessed the power of partnership in school districts–expanding our program to six new partner schools across the country. This growth speaks to the leadership of our partner districts and the commitment to our joint goal to close the opportunity and achievement gaps faced by our nation’s students. We also had the immense pleasure of welcoming Steven Schwartz of Cognizant and Peter Gorman of Amplify (and the former superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools) to our national Board of Directors.

3. Evidence of Impact. 

This fall Citizen Schools released impressive results from the first two years of a three year Expanded Learning Time pilot. Schools that were previously low-performing, experienced significant growth under the ELT model. With an average proficiency gain in English language arts and math of 10.4 percentage points over the past two years, Citizen Schools is a proven model of turnaround success according to U.S. Department of Education standards.

We could never have built lasting partnerships, sparked big ideas or achieved this amazing success without the support from our staff, volunteers, funders, families, school districts, school partners and most importantly our amazing students. Despite challenges both large and small and a few forks in the road, it has been a remarkable year in Citizen Schools history.

Thank you for your continued belief that we can change public education America. Here's hoping for an even better 2013.

Citizen Schools Illinois: The Struggles and Satisfactions in the Back of the Yards

Jake Oher is a Citizen Schools Illinois Teacing Associate at Cesar Chavez Academy in Chicago. This post was originally published on the Huffington Post Blog. I came into the school year not knowing what to expect. As Citizen Schools Illinois was just about to enter into a partnership with Cesar Chavez Academy, I was a first time teacher who was anticipating the worst. During the first few weeks I experienced a couple bumps in the road, but a few things were made clear to me from day one.

First, Cesar Chavez Academy is a remarkable school that is led by an amazing group of devoted staff and teachers. I instantly knew that I was in the right place once I felt the warmth and love that everybody shares.

The second thing I noticed was that despite it being a launch year, the organization hired a strong group of individuals. Our friendships were almost instantaneous due to our shared passion for helping to close the achievement gap for students in Chicago. While my coworkers, atmosphere, and school are all great, the real reason I am working at Citizen Schools Illinois is for the chance to make a difference with students.

The students at Chavez are an amazing group of individuals who put in the work to advance themselves. Like all growing children, they still have some lessons they need to learn. However, for the most part, these kids care and respect themselves, their peers and the adults they interact with in their worlds. A few weeks into the school year, as the program began to pick up; it was already time to roll out our apprenticeship program.

The chance to be involved in an apprenticeship is what makes Citizen Schools such a unique and exciting program. Students are given the opportunity to work with and learn from experienced professionals across a wide variety of fields. As a Teaching Associate, I was paired up with one of our corporate partners, AOL, to teach a program called Brand You. The apprenticeship teaches students the basics of advertising while simultaneously teaching them to promote themselves with the same tools.

We wanted to challenge the students to think about themselves as lifelong brands who need to advertise their skills and abilities to help them get into a good high school and eventually a good college. We learned very quickly that the concept of advertising was new to these students. To start, we really had to drive home the basics. The three key concepts that we focused on were brand identity, brand promise and target audience. The basic definitions of these were helpful for the students, but it wasn't until after watching various TV and online advertisements that the students began to understand why commercials look the way they do -- i.e. the brand identity and promise -- and who advertisers are trying to speak to -- i.e. the target audience.

There were times when students would come into school, run up to me and say, "Have you seen the State Farm Commercial?" The target audience of that commercial is men ages 18-38 and their brand promise is that no matter what happens a State Farm agent will be there to support you. These types of interactions with the students are what teaching and mentoring are all about for me.

It was amazing to see my students engaged, taking information they had learned in their apprenticeship programs and applying it to real life examples. It became clear to me that because of this apprenticeship, some students are now looking at the world in a whole new way and words can't describe how great that makes me feel. I look forward to growing with Citizen Schools Illinois and helping develop the partnership that we have with AOL, because I have already seen the value it adds to our student's lives.

Key Learnings from Launching an Education Program in Chicago

Bryce Bowman is the Executive Director of Citizen Schools Illinois. This post was originally published on the Huffington Post Blog.  Seven years ago, while spending my days working in business in Chicago, I started mentoring Chicago Public School students and -- unknowingly -- headed down the road to launching Citizen Schools Illinois. Working with students at Wells, Manley and Marshall High Schools on Chicago's West Side was eye-opening and I began to learn and understand in a very micro way the intertwined strengths and challenges of the nation's third-largest school system, and, more importantly, the fulfillment that comes from opening an opportunity to a student that otherwise might not have been received. Then I read an article which described how only six in 100 Chicago Public Schools students will graduate from college by the age of 25, and to say I was overwhelmed was an understatement. From my time as a mentor I knew our students were smart, gritty and had what it takes to be successful. They just needed access to high quality schools and opportunities.

With that determined focus, I transitioned into education for a full time career three years ago. Today, as the Citizen Schools Illinois team and I are experiencing the highs and lows of a nonprofit launch in one of the largest cities in the country, we regularly turn to these personal stories. Citizen Schools is just establishing itself in Chicago and in many overlapping communities -- Chicago Public School partners, education reform, corporate community engagement, philanthropy and volunteer management. It is a lot to navigate, so I am pleased to share my greatest takeaways from the last nine months.

1. Make Friends 

Chicago has one of the country's strongest nonprofit sectors. According to the Donors Forum, in 2011 the nonprofit sector in Illinois accounted for more than 10 percent of jobs in the state, with the highest concentration in Chicago. One of the first things we did when considering launching in Chicago was to find and get to know organizations working in our arena. We learned about groups that were providing after-school tutoring, student internships and college prep. There was no one else providing the combination of extended learning time, academic support, 21st century skill-building, and hands-on learning opportunities offered by Citizen Schools. Once we launched, we did not stop building and cultivating those relationships. And we are not just friends with these other organizations -- we are partners, hoping to complement one another and work together to address a challenge larger than any of us. Six months into our launch, these relationships continue to be a priority. I am part of a group of executive directors that meets monthly to share resources, experiences, and advice in order to strengthen all of our groups.

2. Be Nimble

As a new organization -- even with a strong program model and impact data carried over from other cities -- it is essential to be flexible. This ranges from our workspace to our partnerships with schools and corporations. Our staff currently comes and goes from 1871, a co-working center for digital startups in the Merchandise Mart, finding a comfortable place to work and making connections with the next generation of innovators. I would never have imagined six months ago that this is where we would be based, but we were able to respond when the opportunity was presented.

Our school partners, Chavez Multicultural Academic Center in Back of the Yards and Walsh Elementary in Pilsen, have different needs and priorities dictated by their populations. We have been flexible with our extended learning time to meet their needs -- including more computer-based learning in some classrooms, adapting academic support to align with daytime lessons in others, and creating customized learning opportunities for students with special needs at both schools. We are confident in the impact of our extended learning time -- a study of our school partnerships in Boston showed we are capable of closing the achievement gap for students in an astounding three short years -- and that knowledge allows us to make the small adjustments necessary to address school's individual needs.

Our corporate and community partners return our flexibility in their own ways. For 10 weeks in the fall and another 10 weeks in the spring, corporate and community representatives become Citizen Teachers, leading our students in 90-minute apprenticeships that connect learning to career opportunities and start to close the inspiration gap. Partners from corporations - for example, AOL leaders teach marketing and finance -- re-arranged their schedules when we faced issues like our local teachers' strike, which impacted the fall apprenticeship calendar. And we are able to bring students to the apprenticeships when partners like Deloitte want to participate but need to have the students come to their offices.

3. Communicate Clearly and Often

You have to share what you are willing to do and not to do. As Patrick Lencioni so articulately points out in his book, "The Advantage," leaders must communicate clearly, they must do it often, and their team must know exactly where they stand so all team members feel empowered to make clear decisions with a focus on our stakeholders at all times. While we will not be perfect, if we have that clarity across our team, and that shared focus, we will build together rapidly and impact students.

4. Focus on Impact

Often in our team meetings, we debate strategic issues and when there are conflicting views, a team member will ask, "What is best for our kids?" Typically, the answer becomes very clear and we quickly rally around this decision. It is my job to lead with this view, and to never divert from this. In a launch organization, there is pressure to do everything -- and to do it all well. As any great business would say, focusing on our core competency is where we need to turn. We are a partner to schools, and we bring opportunities to students in order to help them achieve their dreams. That is our focus, and that is how we must make decisions on a weekly, daily, hourly and minute-to-minute basis.

Launching a new organization is never easy and there are many moving parts. In urban education, there are a lot of complex moving parts. It's part of the reason I love this work. But I hope our priorities help you think about your own organization's focus. What lessons have you learned launching a nonprofit?

Our Kids are Running for Office

Although kids have to wait until they're 18 years old to vote, it's never too early for them to learn how to be active participants in democracy. In two of America's biggest cities, that's exactly what they're learning...

At the Bronx Writing Academy in the the Bronx, New York, a group of 6th grade students is part of the "Running for Office" apprenticeship, led by Citizen Schools staffer, Brian O'Neil.

The kids are learning the inner workings of a political campaign. In five small groups they are charged with developing a campaign to run for president of their school for a day. Each group is made up of all the major players-- a candidate, campaign manager, marketing manager and treasurer.

All five groups are stepping up to the challenge. With a very limited budget, the treasurers have to decide how to spend the money-- on brochures, polling, television commercials, etc. The marketing managers have to come up with the catchiest slogan and campaign theme. The candidates are busy practicing the most compelling, professional speeches, while the campaign managers are keeping everyone organized and paying close attention to the student polls. And they're doing all that in only 90 minutes per week!

At the end of the apprenticeship, the students will experience exactly what America's candidates are going through now. First, they'll run in the "primaries" where a group of political professionals will give select their top candidates. Then, the big day comes when each candidate will run for office in front of the most intimidating audience of all-- their peers.

Over in Chicago, Illinois, a group of sixth and seventh grade students at Cesar Chavez Multicultural Academic Center are participating in a "Political Analysis" apprenticeship. They're diving right into the upcoming 2012 national presidential race.

The students are learning everything about the presidential election process-- from what it means to be a "swing state," to the role of the media, to how to analyze election projections and results. The biggest hit in the class so far has been the creation of the class Twitter handle, to send messages and questions to the candidates. Follow them @CCapprentice.

The kids have already learned something a lot of adult Americans don't even know! They held a popular vote and an electoral college- style vote to see just how different the results can be.

Callie Kozlak, Citizen Schools staff member and lead volunteer, is proud of the growth she's seen in the kids already. She said, "As we talk about the election and each candidate's platform, the students are thoughtfully making connections to their own lives and what type of impact national issues have on their communities."

At the end of the semester, the students will act as political pundits on their own news show to provide an analysis of the election's results. Stay tuned!

"Voting and learning about our democracy is empowering for youth. I want kids who come from traditionally underrepresented communities in our democracy to realize that this is one route for them to have an impact and a voice on important issues impacting their community. We need leaders to do this type of work and it's up to people like them to do it," Brian said. We know our students can be those leaders.

Our kids have a lot of presidential elections ahead of them. As active citizens in their democracy, we just might see one of them in office some day.