Longitudinal Study Shows Promising Results in Charlotte

Think back to your first day of 6th grade. You were probably brand new to middle school–trying to find your classrooms, looking for familiar faces, trying not to get squashed by one of the big 8th graders. Six years ago, Mary Espinosa was one of those kids. But she wasn't just any new middle schooler. She came from an immigrant family that was brand new to Charlotte, North Carolina and starting middle school in an unfamiliar, lower-income neighborhood.

After a year of making new friends and meeting students from Spanish speaking households, one- parent households and all types of families, she joined a program called Citizen Schools in 7th grade. Her experiences there helped shape her trajectory–and that of her peers.

Citizen Schools was also brand new to Charlotte when Mary signed up, and its leadership hoped that its model would be as transformative here as it had been in Boston, where it was founded in 1995. The district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), has defined its goal of achieving a 90% high school graduation rate by 2014 (compared to 75% in 2012). To accomplish that, it partners with a variety of programs. Citizen Schools is one.

Mary's High School Graduation

Mary and her fellow Eastway Middle School students stayed after school to experience academic support, caring mentors, and Citizen Schools’ signature enrichment opportunities–apprenticeships. Professionals from community companies like Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Microsoft come to the schools to lead projects in a range of skills, helping kids discover new career paths and set goals for the next stage of their lives.

Now, the question for Citizen Schools and the district is “Did it work?” Can we tell if participating in a given program has had an impact on children’s lives, and how long does that impact last?

Answering this notoriously difficult question requires investing in a rigorous form of evaluation called a longitudinal study. Citizen Schools looked at its oldest cohort of alumni in Charlotte and their peers–more than 600 students. With additional data provided by CMS, we were then able to match the Citizen Schools participants to peers who were similar to them demographically but did not participate in the Citizen Schools program. This gave us the opportunity to measure the impact of Citizen Schools during middle school, as well as to and through high school.

Here’s what we learned.

Engagement and Achievement

Overall, across all cohorts, Citizen Schools participants had fewer absences during the Citizen Schools program year. Citizen Schools 7th grade participants identified as academically at-risk the year prior to Citizen Schools participation were 15 percentage points more likely to score proficient in Math in 7th grade than their matched peers. Hispanic Citizen Schools’ participants achieved a Math proficiency rate of 80% during their program years of participation in Citizen Schools–a rate 20 percentage points higher than their matched peers. 

In high school, Citizen Schools participants consistently scored higher and had a greater proportion pass the End-Of-Course exams than their matched peers, increasing their likelihood of on-time high school graduation and college readiness.

Charlotte Data


In middle school and high school, Mary and her Citizen Schools classmates actually got more education. They had a higher attendance rate than matched peers, reducing absenteeism by an average of 49% in 9th and 10th grade. They also had fewer out-of-school suspensions. In 9th grade, for example, the cohort had zero suspensions, compared to an average of 1.5 suspended days for matched peers.

In addition to engagement, the Citizen Schools alumni had impressive academic achievement. In 8th grade, the cohort achieved a Math End-of-Grade (EOG) proficiency rate 15 percentage points higher than matched peers, and 8.3 percentage points higher in Reading. Continuing that culture of achievement in high school, the cohort achieved an Algebra I End-of-Course (EOC) proficiency rate 20% points higher than matched peers, and 4.9% points higher on the English I EOC as well.

Higher Education

What accounts for this difference? Ask Mary, and she’ll tell you that her dedication to working hard stems from a dream she discovered in 8th grade, as part of Citizen Schools 8th Grade Academy (8GA). As she writes in this essay for Citizen Schools’ inspirED blog, as a young child she never considered the possibility of college. No one in her family had, and she figured it would be too expensive anyway.

But during 8GA, she went on a number of college tours, learned about financial aid and scholarships, and started to realize that college could be within her reach with hard work and determination. She wanted to be the first person in her family to go college, and now, she is. Mary is one of 46% of the first CMS Citizen Schools cohort who have seamlessly enrolled in college in fall 2012. This rate surpasses the national average of 40% for students of all income levels.

Half of these Citizen Schools alumni are currently enrolled at 4-year colleges, including excellent in-state schools such as UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte (where Mary attends), North Carolina A&T State University, and similarly strong out-of-state schools such as Howard University. The other half are currently enrolled at 2-year colleges, with the large majority enrolled at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte (CPCC)–a nationally recognized community college. Statewide in North Carolina, nearly 40% of students that earned a 4-year college or university degree last year had previously attended a 2-year college like CPCC. Nationally, fewer than 10% of low-income students earn a degree by age 25.

Mary and the other Citizen Schools alumni are on their way to that top ten. Mary considers herself to be one of the lucky ones. This year, when she was volunteering with a local youth group, she saw other kids like herself. She realized that they don’t usually hear someone say that they can go to college in the future, and she used her own life story to change that expectation. “After Citizen Schools, I definitely felt like I could go to college,” she said. “Giving us that mentality was very empowering.”

This data tells a compelling story about the effectiveness of programs that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is working with to ensure that all of its students graduate from high school. It is, however, early data on a small set of students. It will take sustained commitment from every teacher, parent, and community member to help Citizen Schools students and their peers stay on track, attending school more regularly, staying out of trouble, and achieving at higher rates.

Mary’s advice to current Charlotte students is simple. “Pay attention, work hard, and keep your eyes on the prize.” Mary and the first Citizen Schools cohort in Charlotte are not only beating the odds. They’re fundamentally changing the equation and closing the achievement gap through high school and into college. This data shows that there is hope for even more kids to do the same.

How to Avoid Falling Off the School Cliff

A recent Gallup Poll article gives us one more thing to worry about: falling off the school cliff. According to the report, students become less and less engaged with every school year. The data shows that in elementary school nearly 80% of children are engaged in their classes. By middle school that engagement decreases to 61% of students and then plummets to 44% by high school. Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Gallup Education says, "The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure." So what can we do to fix it?

1. Build community partnerships.

Part of the problem is a lack of opportunity for kids to spread their creative and entrepreneurial wings. Gallup shows that 45% of kids from grades 5-12 want to start a business when they grow up. But shockingly, only 5% spend more than one hour a week exposed to a real business.

So let's bring the businesses to them. At Citizen Schools, 31 middle schools bring in professionals from big businesses like Google, Bank of America, Fidelity and Cognizant to give the kids the exposure and inspiration they need in middle school to get them excited about their futures. By leading hands-on classes called "apprenticeships" the kids aren't just being exposed to potential careers, they're doing them by investing in stocks, building robots and editing blogs. 80% of Citizen Schools students who experience a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) related apprenticeship report being interested in pursuing a career in STEM compared to only 33% of 8th graders who are interested in STEM careers nationally. How's that for boosting engagement?

2. Focus on the middle grades.

Middle school is absolutely critical for keeping kids engaged. As kids transition from elementary school where they are typically most engaged, keeping them on a path to success is imperative. According to research by Robert Balfanz in his Putting Middle School Grades Students on the Graduation Path report, the first year of middle school is the "make or break year" when the largest number of students develop potential indicators for dropping out.

The silver lining there is that his findings also show that 6th graders who develop "off-track" indicators tend to stay in school for at least 5 more years-- allowing time to reinvest in them and change their trajectories. By capitalizing on those important middle grades, those students can be re-engaged and put back on track.

3. Expand the learning day. 

It's not easy to give students the inspiration and exposure they need in the confinements of a traditional school day. Expanded learning time (ELT) allows schools more time to enrich and re-engage students by bringing in a second shift of fresh-faced educators. Kids who don't necessarily have the chance to play on sports teams, take piano lessons or join the chess club still need the opportunity to get their feet wet in trying new things. By adding on time at the end of the school day and using it wisely-- schools have the chance to reinforce learning through hands-on projects.

But does it work? In a recent New York Daily News article, Executive Director of Citizen Schools New York Nitzan Pelman pointed to the impressive results of the beginning stages of a three-year ELT pilot initiative. Over two years, Citizen Schools partner schools averaged a 10.4 percentage point gain in proficiency on math and English standardized tests. That meets the U.S. Department of Education standard for successful turnaround in three years. And it was done in only two!

Brandon Busteed says, "For each year a student progresses in school, they should be more engaged, not less." And they can be. We've seen it happen. Find out how can you help change education in America.