Opportunity Gap

The City as Classroom

The City as Classroom

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.

Creating a Personal Brand with Brenda Williams, the Citizen Teacher of the Month

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_QRa-JE4c8 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.”

Three Pre-Career Tips for Mentoring a Middle-Schooler

8th grade student networking with Boston area professional. Think middle school is too soon to prep for college? Think again. At Citizen Schools, we're working to close the opportunity gap by reaching students at the crucial time between 5th and 8th grade, providing academic support and real-world apprenticeships. That's why we recently helped bring together over sixty 8th graders for a networking event where they picked up practical tips and inspiration from working professionals. We followed along; here are three takeaways to help you mentor a young person.

Take risks Taking risks sounds like the obvious answer to getting out of your comfort zone. But the unknown can also be unnerving. The good news is that there are varying degrees of risk, and some low-risk chances can have a high reward. If you're shy, volunteering to answer a question and possibly having the wrong answer can feel like the end of the world. But diving in like that should be encouraged!

For another student, taking a risk may be signing up for a different class or sport. We all have our areas in which we excel more than others. Being flexible about trying new activities means that we can avoid tunnel vision and learn about new interests, and middle school is an especially great time to hone new skills as you consider the many potential opportunities and paths ahead.

Gain hands-on experience Academics aren't just intense study sessions at the library - they also include hands-on practice. For some students, academics include designing and coding a video game, and diversifying your academic portfolio can do a lot to impress college admissions staff. When college admissions are considering applications grades are only part of the equation. Proving you can think as well as do will give a certain edge over the competition.

Student test gel electrophoresis

This is why apprenticeships are key to Citizen Schools’ model to close the opportunity gap. By bringing in passionate professionals to teach practical applications of 21st century skills, not only do middle school students earn a marketable skill they may not have otherwise, but it will serve to expand their horizons. Even if students don’t become what they studied as a career down the line, they still opened doors to new professional horizons.

Ask Questions “Why is the sky blue?” “Why is ice cold?” “Why do tigers have stripes?” Anyone that has spent time with a young person knows that one of their favorite things to do is ask questions. Encourage students to keep curiosity alive by continuing to be inquisitive.

Great questions can include what you do for work, why you enjoy it, and what you wanted to be when you grew up. It’s ok to talk about both successes, and scenarios that offered lessons for improvement. The more students are exposed to different career profiles, the more they will feel comfortable stepping outside of their own comfort zones and shaping their own journey.

Modern life offers new challenges and stresses for young people, and mentor/mentoree relationships are powerful bridges between the professional world and our next great generation of thinkers, makers and doers. You can help start the conversation, and middle school is an especially good time to make that happen. And, it's a discussion that is relevant at any age! What advice would you share for someone starting out on this journey? Add your tips in the comments!

Find out more about changing student's lives with Citizen Schools.

Expanded Learning Time Panel Discusses How Community Partners Can Make an Impact for Students

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TVyBqLSHjk "Extended learning may be the only reason some young people come to school." - Jonathan Brice, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, US Department of Education.

On May 19, the Center for American Progress (CAP) hosted a panel, All Hands on Deck: How Expanded Learning Time Schools and Community Partnerships Work Together to Improve Outcomes for Students, to discuss how expanded learning time (ELT) and community partnerships can create a positive impact for students and schools.

The event featured remarks from Carmel Martin, Executive Vice President of Policy at CAP, and Jonathan Brice, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, US Department of Education. The panel was moderated by Jennifer Davis, Co-Founder and President of the National Center of Time and Learning, and included Eric Schwarz, Co-Founder and CEO of Citizen Schools, Megan Bird, Managing Director of Program for Citizen Schools Massachusetts, Chris Caruso, ExpandED Schools Senior Vice President, and Kerri Ayn Seow,  Third Grade Teacher, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School.

The panelists discussed how community organizations, such as Citizen Schools, have partnered closely with schools and their administration to make an impact for students, teachers, and the community at large with an expanded day. The additional hours allow for more time for academics, more enriching activities, and more time for teacher collaboration and planning.

"ELT gives me the chance to teach what I wasn't able to during class and the extra activities enrich my lessons," Kerri Ayn Seow.

Read more about the event here.



Larry Summers Shares How Citizen Schools is a Solution

Eric Schwarz is the Co-Founder and CEO of Citizen Schools _dsc0930At a time of growing innovation but also growing inequality, Citizen Schools is poised to scale our impact with Larry Summers, President Emeritus at Harvard University and former Treasury Secretary of the United States, as our new national board chair. Summers has seen Citizen Schools up close through his work with the Dever-McCormack ELT school in Boston, where his daughter Ruth serves as an AmeriCorps Teaching Fellow, and at our annual WOW! Bowl flag football competition. He has a compelling capacity to explain our work in the context of history and economic trends.

On March 6, I was pleased to welcome business and finance leaders in New York City to hear Larry discuss education and the economy, and the key reasons why he believes Citizen Schools is a solution to our most pressing education challenges.

_dsc0911"I believe the battle for America's future, and its legitimacy, will be won or lost in its public schools," Summers said in his speech. "The approach being pioneered and driven by Citizen Schools is a remarkably effective approach, a remarkably scalable approach, and an approach consistent with the broad value of American society – that Americans are people who pitch in with a sense of community to solve problems."

To read Larry's full speech and learn more about his perspective on closing the opportunity gap click here.

I Moved Back To Oakland to Fight Inequality


Nhi Truong is a second year Teaching Fellow in Oakland, California. 

I moved back to Oakland after college because I wanted to do my part in fighting educational inequity in my community.

For my first two years of high school, I went to a public school in Alameda, a pretty well-off island right next to Oakland. The last two years of high school, I attended a public school in West Oakland called McClymonds High School. My experience in those two very different environments taught me a lot about the structural racism and economic injustice that the Oakland community faces. Even though those two communities are really close in distance, one school has access to all sorts of resources and opportunities like a librarian, student government, clubs, and after school programs, and the other did not.

My classmates and I at McClymonds didn’t see education as a strong asset for the future because we weren’t given the resources like clubs and afterschool programs that would help us make that connection. Instead, I depended a lot on a few teachers and leaders in the community. They helped me get through school and showed me how important and necessary it is to go to college and give back.

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I was the first one in my family to go to college. It was a tough transition leaving Oakland, where most of my friends came from low-income families from all different racial backgrounds. There were many moments in class when I felt like I did not belong due to my background, but I convinced myself that this is where I, and my folks from Oakland, need to be. We belong in universities. I was determined to bring more students like me into college. Students from communities like Oakland need someone to show them that they are powerful and loved and amazing--and that they deserve to go to college too.

That sentiment led me to Citizen Schools and the AmeriCorps National Teaching Fellowship.

I had never worked with middle school students, but I was excited to have the opportunity to work with students at this very special age, when the right resources can make the difference for them for the rest of their lives. I remember when I was in 5th grade, new to America, and a teacher named Mr. Nguyen was like a father figure to me. Not only did he make school fun, he showed me that he really cared about me and every single student in his classroom. He inspired me to become a teacher and show the same love he has given me to all my students. I still keep in contact with him now.

But I was lucky. Thousands of kids like me didn’t get those connections. That’s the reason why I want to be there for my students. I see myself being like Mr. Nguyen when I crack jokes that he used to use, and I’m strict when I need to be like he was. Drawing on the opportunities I was given motivates me to be a better teacher.

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I feel like so often people from my community don’t always come back once they get the opportunity to leave and pursue different opportunities. But I was excited to come back to “the hood.” I am constantly reminded of Tupac & Professor Jeff Ducan Andrade’s theory of roses in concrete. Once you’ve been nurtured in the garden, it’s important to take what you’ve experienced back to the streets to pull the other roses out of the concrete.

If it weren’t for the leaders who came back to help me, I might not be where I am today. I want my students to see themselves in me the way that I saw myself in leaders like Mr. Nguyen.

I want them to know that we may not have the same struggles, but if I can make it, they can make it. And I’m here to let them know how powerful and beautiful they all are.

You can help students prepare for the future like Nhi does, by applying to the National Teaching Fellowship today. 


Citizen Schools Expands in the Bay Area!

Citizen Schools California is proud to announce our successful expansion to two new partner sites: Joseph George Middle School, in Alum Rock District of San Jose,  and Ronald McNair Middle School in Ravenswood School District in East Palo Alto. All seven of our campuses across the Bay Area successfully launched in early September and both of our new campuses are embracing a smooth transition to Expanded Learning Time (ELT).

new campus 3In our ELT model, Citizen Schools extends the learning day by three hours and brings a diverse group of caring and committed professionals into the classroom to provide hands on and relevant learning opportunities to students.

Launching program at new sites is no simple task. Here’s an inside look at what the first few days at our new campuses have been like.

At both Joseph George Middle School and Ronald McNair Middle School, Citizen Schools was impressed and thrilled to have 100% attendance on the first day of program. This level of investment could not have have happened without the support of teachers and school administration, many of whom stayed after hours to ensure our AmeriCorps Teaching Fellows were prepared for their first classes.

We found this note on the teacher board at Ronald McNair Middle School!

Of course, parents are also key to our success. Our campus staff and school  partners work closely with them to ensure an easy transition to a longer ELT school day. Campus Directors and Teaching Fellows have been working hard to address  parents’ questions about ELT, and their efforts are paying off. Already we've heard  positive feedback from parents who are excited  that their students are receiving  academic support and opportunities for project based learning.

The support and enthusiasm of the Joseph George Middle School and Ronald McNair Middle School communities as well as the leadership of our campus staff leave us feeling confident that our successes will only continue in the months ahead.  With students, parents, and teachers on board, and with volunteers ready to begin their apprenticeships, the Citizen Schools ship has set sail! We couldn't be happier that school has started again and look forward to seeing YOU in the classroom soon!


Houston's Got Style

So you're an ambitious, adventurous college senior about to set out on a path to career success. As you consider the The National Teaching Fellowship, consider this: Citizen Schools operates in eight unique states. This is the second of a regional series to profile each of our locations. This installment: Houston.

1. Belt Buckles go out on the town.

The Teaching Fellowship is a rewarding and challenging experience. In addition to teaching middle schools students, Fellows must also learn how to live on a stipend.  Although all Teaching Fellows quickly learn to budget grocery bills and eating out, our Texas Fellows find a bigger value in their culinary options.

According to Kat White, “Texas cuisine is a mash up and has a well-deserved reputation for being mind-blowingly, belt-busting-ly good.”  Barbeque, Tex-Mex, Soul Food, Cajun, Creole, and of course, steaks are traditional favorites.

Because the cost of living in Houston is lower than other Citizen Schools regions, Fellows can be found enjoying inexpensive restaurant meals in outdoor seating.  And true to the saying, “Everything is bigger in Texas,” Fellows take the rest of their huge portions home for an addition meal.

2. Belt buckles sparkle in the sunshine.

Citizen Schools utilizes the community to help students shine their inner lights and passions.  In addition to becoming part of the national community of AmeriCorps members, Teaching Fellows quickly become part of local outings offered in their city's spaces.

Kat White adds that Houston’s warmer weather allows green space lovers to thrive.  Because of the affordable cost of living, residents may have a greater chance of having a backyard, porch, or garden at their houses.  Fellows and staff head to Houston’s downtown park, Discovery Green, which offers everything from free classes of Zumba and Yoga, outdoor movies with live music soundtracks, and lawn games.

If you’re like first-year Teaching Fellow Christina Cooley, you might even join an intramural sports kickball league, or run along the Buffalo Bayou trail.  Native Texan Alicia Vasquez also suggests the Miller Outdoor Theatre for concerts.  After such busy and long days in the classroom, both first-year fellows recommend a donation-based Yoga studio.

3. Belt Buckles go with all outfits.

Since 1995, Citizen Schools has been re-imagining the learning day to bring more time, volunteers, and relevant learning to middle-school students in low-income neighborhoods.  By getting citizens into the classroom, we’re closing the achievement and opportunity gaps and increasing student access to opportunity.

With different Texas constituents gathering in the classroom bringing their personal cultural experiences, it’s no surprise that Houston is the most diverse city in the country.  Houston is also home to education reform partner KIPP, and hosts major players such as Teach for America, Yes Prep, Harmony Schools, Education Pioneers, Breakthrough Collaborative, Stand for Children, and more.

4. Belt buckles are travel sized.

Citizen Schools has grown from a Boston program to one that serves in eight states.  We hit the road to expand to Chicago this year, and if you live in Houston, you’ll be hitting the road too and taking that belt buckle for a drive.

A car is important to have when living in Texas.  Although there may be traffic, Christina Cooley suggests additional adventures to Austin, College Station, Waco, Dallas, and San Antonio being worth the drive. Such destinations feature a favorite pastime of fellows and staff: sitting in an inner tube, floating down a river.  If inner tubes and rivers are not your scene, other fun festivals recommended by fellows include the GatorFest (dedicated to Gators) and the Renaissance Fair.

Regardless of your style preferences, keep your mind open to belt buckles and Houston as a region to serve as a National Teaching Fellow. The next application deadline is December 3rd. Don't wait to purchase a new belt buckle and make Houston your new stomping ground. Apply today.

Finding What's Next with The Opportunity Network

At Citizen Schools, we often hear the question, “What happens to your students after 8th grade?” Thanks to a grant from the Heckscher Foundation for Children, Citizen Schools New York, in partnership with The Opportunity Network, has an answer to that question. And it’s a good one… The Opportunity Network is a growing organization with a similar mission to Citizen Schools—to expose kids to new ideas and new dreams, helping them along a path to college and career success. Over the last two years The Opportunity Network piloted a new program, OppNet Prep. The program's primary aim is for students to build a solid foundation in college and career goal-setting and skill-building. Those skills will then help them maximize the impact of any enrichment programs in subsequent high school years and increase the odds of success on the road to college.

OppNet Prep is expanding this year in both numbers and scope, doubling participants from 72 to 154 students. We are proud to announce that 10 of our own Citizen Schools alumni have been accepted to participate.

This year, Citizen Schools and OppNet Prep are answering that question, “What’s next?” After a very competitive application process, the accepted 9th grade students started the program this fall. As it grows, students will attend a summer bridge program between 8th and 9th grade to help prepare the students for high school.

Throughout the year, they will have after school workshops in which they will connect with influential professionals from a variety of career fields and explore how to get into college.

This amazing new partnership between Citizen Schools and The Opportunity Network is called the Middle School to High School Transition Coalition. It’s the beginning stages of a big idea about targeted, thoughtful collaboration between non-profit resources to support students in need through their school transitions. With these two programs working in tandem, New York’s students will have a structured support system, carrying them from middle school to high school and beyond.

Thanks to support from the Heckscher Foundation for Children, this opportunity for Citizen Schools’ alumni was made possible. The Heckscher Foundation for Children was founded in 1921 to promote the welfare of children in New York and across the country. The foundation provides grants to organizations like Citizen Schools, who serve youth in the fields of education, family services, child welfare, health, arts and recreation. We are thrilled to be recognized by such a prestigious foundation.

And we’re not the only ones who are excited! Our students can’t wait to begin their programming with OppNet Prep. 9th grader at NYC iSchool and Citizen Schools alumna, Kaira Batiz, was recently accepted to the OppNet Prep program.

"I was so happy when I found out I got in. There was this feeling of achievement and I was so proud of myself. I thank Citizen Schools so much because they were there to encourage me. That’s something you don’t experience often, a community of people that are here for you and care about your future," she said.

OppNet Prep is also looking forward to our new partnership. Dana Marra, OppNet Prep Instructor and former Citizen Schools Teaching Associate, has seen both programs in action and understands why this partnership is such a great fit.

She said, “Citizen Schools students have already been exposed to many different opportunities through their apprenticeships. Coming out of 8th grade they are poised to interact with working adults in a professional manner. At OppNet Prep, those kids will be able to take that one step further and actually begin to cultivate their own professional identity. The partnership allows OppNet Prep to really reach the population we’re looking for, kids from under-served public schools, and get them on track for college and careers.”

The Citizen Schools journey doesn't end after middle school. Thanks to partners like The Opportunity Network and foundations like the Heckscher Foundation for Children, we can ensure that our students go on to achieve their dreams well after 8th grade.

America Gets a C-, But There's Still Hope

The results from the recently released America's Report Card on child well-being aren't pretty. America was awarded an overall grade of C- on insuring educational opportunities and providing for the country's kids. Yikes.

The joint report by two of our peer organizations First Focus and Save the Children is the first in an annual series of America's Report Cards to assess child well-being in America. The report looks at five measures:  economic security, early childhood, K–12 education, permanency and stability, and health and safety. According  to the report, these are the key indicators in assessing child well-being at all stages of childhood.

Let's look at some of the numbers from the report...

  • In 2011, 43.9 percent of children under age 18 were living in low-income families.
  • In 2011, more than 8.5 million children lived in households where one or more child was food insecure.
  • In 2011, 33.7 percent of Hispanic/Latino children under age 18 were living in poverty.
  •  In 2011, 38.6 percent of African-American children under age 18 were living in poverty
  • In the 2010–2011 school year, out of 49.5 million children enrolled in the public school system, 1.1 million were identified as homeless by the U.S. Department of Education.

Citizen Schools works with kids like these--if you add up all the students at the schools we partner with, 85% qualified for free and reduced lunch in the 2011-2012 academic year. These disheartening numbers represent the kids we see every day in middle schools across the country.

The report presents a challenge to our country. We're not failing our children, but we're not doing great either. We can do better. We  encourage our students every day to get good grades.  We wouldn't let them settle for a C- and neither can we.

Luckily, there's hope. We've seen the damaging effects that poverty can have on a child's education, and school districts are getting creative to help close the opportunity and achievement gaps. Let's look at some more hopeful numbers.

  • This fall 2,200 volunteers from some of America's biggest companies-- Google, Facebook, Bank of America, Cisco-- are stepping up to the plate. They're giving these kids the opportunities they need to beat the odds they're up against by teaching them how to become computer programmers, investment bankers, engineers and dreamers. (Join them.)
  • 239 young educators have committed 2 years to AmeriCorps and the National Teaching Fellowship. In tandem with 113 part-time teaching associates, they are providing kids with academic support and leadership development while helping volunteers have a huge impact on their students. (Serve with them.)
  • 31 middle schools around the country have partnered with Citizen Schools to create a longer, fuller day for the kids who need it most. Together, we are dedicated to increasing proficiency rates and connecting school districts to the companies and organizations in their communities.
  • For the second year in a row our expanded learning time partner schools delivered average gains of 5 or more points across their English and Math proficiency assessments, dramatically exceeding the results of other turnaround efforts in high-poverty schools.
  • 5,323 American kids are being exposed to new careers, discovering new dreams and working toward a successful future they otherwise would never think possible. Their parents are determined to connect their children to the best opportunities while juggling the intense challenges of insufficient income. (Make a donation. It will make a difference.)

Our volunteers, partners, principals, parents, staff and students are pioneers. They are showing the rest of the country that yes, we can do better. And we are. 

With hard work, investment and belief in themselves, students can turn their grades around. We've seen it happen. America can do the same. Come visit one of our classrooms this fall and see for yourself.

Student Success Depends on Hope

The 2011 Student Gallup Poll revealed a shocking reality about American kids. Only 54% of students have hope that their future will be better than the present. The poll surveyed approximately 1 million children from grades 5 through 12 from 2009 to 2011. The poll defines student "hope" as the belief that "the future will be better than the present, and that they have the power to make it so."

According to Gallup, hope is a better predictor of student success in college than a high school GPA or even ACT and SAT scores.

Yesterday's Education Week article takes a closer look at Gallup's measurement of student hope and engagement and their effect on academic achievement.

To measure engagement the poll asked kids to what extent "they feel safe, important, and acknowledged in their classrooms." According to the article, overall engagement was high.

However, a significant dip in engagement takes place in middle school. Shane Lopez, senior scientist at Gallup, said students feel less valued and recognized in middle school than in the younger grades.

Perhaps most notable from the article is that according to Lopez, student hope has almost no correlation to family income. Regardless of socioeconomic status, only half of American students believe that they have what it takes to be successful in the future. What happened to hope? Where are the dreamers?

Hope is vital to a student in middle school, which is arguably the most critical time for kids to be engaged and excited about learning. Poor kids might not even realize what they are up against. As middle and upper class kids experience sports, camps and enrichment programs they have a chance to build up their hopes and dreams for the future. But for poor kids who don't have the same opportunities, what will become of them?

Kids need mentors. Kids need more time to learn in an active, hands-on environment. Kids need to get their hands dirty. They can't hope or dream something if they can't see it. By providing all students with more access to caring, successful adults and changing the look and feel of the school day, American kids can find the hope they've been missing. Hope, after all, is what this country was founded on. We can't give up on it.

Tennis Camp to CEO: Learning Success

Eric Schwarz, Co-Founder and CEO of Citizen Schools, didn't always like school. In fact, he didn't like it at all during middle school. When I heard my boss say at our summer training sessions that at one point he didn’t even like school, I had to pause and make sure my ears weren’t clogged. This is the man who founded Citizen Schools, and he didn’t even like middle school? What?! His story that followed made me understand…

Let's go back a few years to 13-year-old Eric. It was August and the end of summer gloom was drawing near. He hated school at that point. One day while dreading going back, Eric got a letter from his camp councelor. It was a hand-written note that began, "Eric, your serve is wicked good."

13 year-old-Eric had gone to tennis camp that summer and now he had this badge of honor bragging about his talent. It was filled with praise and memories of a great summer experience.

That letter made young Eric feel good. He kept it in a wallet for a long time and read it often. After spending hours with his counselor, here was proof that his time paid off. He learned what a good backhand and serve felt like, and that muscle memory stayed with him.

In retrospect, it did something much bigger than that. It described an experience of developing the muscle memory of success. It wasn't just the physical memory of how to complete the perfect serve, but the memory of what success feels like. It was the feeling he hadn't gotten at school.

Young Eric never forgot that muscle memory, and it took him through summer jobs, internships and well into his adult career.

In his upcoming book, Eric Schwarz will tell stories like this one, reflecting on his childhood and the dazzling array of opportunities he had to flex his success muscles. As he pointed out in his recent response to David Brooks’ Opportunity Gap article, these types of opportunities that are available to middle class kids are widening the divide between families that have, and families that have not.  Struggling in middle school is common but, tennis camp, clubs and internships are not.

After hearing that story I saw how Citizen Schools gives kids the chance to develop that muscle memory of success while giving them more time at the end of school day. They develop social skills and social networks while experiencing multiple chances to be successful with successful adults.

Eric’s story made me remember that there was a time when I hated middle school too. But after joining the chorus, running track and acting in the school play, I left 8th grade loving school and loving life. I might not ever have a "wicked serve" in tennis, but I got to experience success and I liked how it felt. I carried that feeling with me through high school, college and to Citizen Schools where I watched our students stretch and grow that same muscle in their apprenticeships and academic support sessions.  Citizen Schools can help the 13-year-old Erics, and all students see what success feels like.

Now in August of 2012 the "back to school gloom" is here again. This semester you can be the one to help a child who might not like middle school stretch and grow those muscles. Teach an apprenticeship and show kids what makes you successful. There is still time to sign up for the fall semester and make a difference in closing the gap.

How You Can Close The Opportunity Gap

Eric Schwarz is the Co-Founder and CEO of Citizen Schools.  I read David Brooks' New York Times column with excitement. At Citizen Schools, we've been talking about erasing the "opportunity gap" as the pathway to erasing the achievement gap for years. Brooks, and Robert Putnam who he cites, are right on in naming this serious threat to the American Dream.

I'd hate for his readers to throw up their hands in despair, though. We have too much of a stake in the success of this generation to be overwhelmed and settle for the status quo. The fact is, we can do something about it. Now.

I'm spending a lot of my time this year writing a book about these themes. Basically, the issue Brooks and others are starting to recognize is this:

  1. The achievement gap, when measured by family income, is getting much, much worse. By whatever measure (educational attainment, SAT scores, etc.), if upper middle class kids were X ahead of poor kids in the 1960s, now upper middle class kids are 2X ahead. The class-based achievement gap has doubled!
  2. Poor kids are not doing worse. In fact they are doing a little better.
  3. But wealthier kids are achieving at dramatically higher rates -- propelled forward by a dazzling array of lessons, tutors, camps, parental coaching, internships, and other opportunities that upper middle class families provide to their kids to give them the best chances of success.
  4. The dramatically growing achievement gap between upper and lower income kids is mostly driven by out-of-school factors. Various studies, some cited in the new book, Wither Opportunity, edited by Richard Murnane and Greg Duncan, show that teacher and school quality account for about one-third of the class-based achievement gap but opportunities out of school account for two-thirds.
  5. Specifically, Brooks writes, upper income families have in the last generation increased their spending on their children's extracurricular learning (everything from tutoring to violin lessons to camp) by $5,300 per year while lower income families increased their spending by $480. At the same time, upper-income families, buoyed by greater workplace flexibility, have quadrupled the time they spend with their children, including reading to them, while lower-income parents increased their parenting time by only a slight amount.

In my book I'm describing the incredible opportunities I had as an upper middle class kid growing up in Manhattan. The growing opportunity and achievement gaps are personal to me; families like mine unwittingly increase the achievement gap through the incredible advantages we give our kids. I've seen my kids fly past many of their peers in the same high-quality Brookline, MA, public school due to the camps, tutoring, and coaching they have been able to access.

We have a vicious cycle in which being born poor means you lose out educationally more than ever before, and losing out educationally means you lose out economically more than ever before. Unchanged, those trend lines will tear the country apart.

But unlike Brooks, I'm ultimately optimistic, because of my work with Citizen Schools and our partnerships with parents and schools. The expanded learning day gives lower-income kids the same fuel that has powered the growing achievement of the upper middle class: more time to learn, and more chances to be successful with successful adults.

And if you live in Boston, New Bedford, New York City, Newark, Charlotte, Durham, Chicago, Houston, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Mescalero, or the Bay Area in California, you have a way to help close the opportunity gaps in your community this fall. You can teach something that you love at a public middle school that partners with Citizen Schools.

When you help students argue a mock trial, or publish a newspaper, or design a video game, or launch a rocket, you help them develop the muscle memory of success. When an AmeriCorps Teaching Fellow helps a student master fractions, or long division, or hyperbole, they do the same thing.

The students and families are hungry for enriching educational opportunities like the ones that shape the elite. Citizen Schools works with schools to mobilize the rest of the community to close the opportunity gap--and the achievement gap with it.

Let me know if you're interested. Or if you've taught with Citizen Schools before, maybe it's time you taught again, or could recruit others. If you agree with David Brooks, then put down your New York Times and close the gap with us.

The Kids Teach the Teachers

Libby Monahan is a Second Year Teaching Fellow at the Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury, MA

The thing that attracted me to Citizen Schools the most was that not only are they working on closing the achievement gap, but they also recognize that the achievement gap is much more complex than just academics. They work towards closing an opportunity and access gap as well.

I work as a Citizen Teacher Lead for the Orchard Gardens School. So I have the opportunity to work with all of our students and teachers, and work with our apprenticeship programs, to provide that access and opportunity to our students.

My team of students last year challenged me to be a teacher, and they taught me how to be a teacher. One of my closest students to me, her name is Julienette. And I would credit her with being the student who taught me how to be not only a teacher, but just a providing and caring adult for a student.


Julienette was one of those girls who ran with the popular girls, and you know, she thought she was too cool for school, was consistently getting D’s and F’s in all of her classes, and couldn’t have cared less. No matter how much I pushed her, she was not budging.

So, one day, I was down in the main office doing door duty, and she was with her tutor, and she walked away from her tutor, came into the office, sat down in the chair next to me, didn’t say anything, and just started crying. And I had no idea why. I was right out of college, and never had a student sit there and cry to me before, so I was very out of my element.

And she just told me she had been being bullied, and that’s why she wasn’t caring about school. It was her best friend that had been bullying her, and peer pressuring her into doing negative things...

That presented me with an opportunity, and a window, to really provide impact in one student’s life. And since then, I paid for her to go to our Thompson Island Summer Project program. I’ve worked with her throughout the summer; I’ve worked with her throughout the school year, and really became more than a teacher. I became a mentor to her.

And I think I’ve seen change in her from over the summer, and I see change in her this school year, and it’s just a good story to tell when you think about the work that we do, and that it’s not only about getting their grades up. It’s about helping them become whole people, and that’s why I do the work that I do.