hill day

A capital victory

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Guest Post by CEO Steven Rothstein

I wish you could have been with me last week in our nation’s capital. I am so inspired by so many of the students, principals, corporate partners, and others who joined us there.

On Monday, we had a special briefing on key education and STEM issues at the White House. On Tuesday, we organized, with the partnership of many other groups and organizations, the first-ever Expanded Learning Summit: Meeting In The Middle. Many joined in person and hundreds more participated in the conversation via live stream or social media. Then on Wednesday, we continued the advocacy and momentum and brought students, educators, corporate partners and our team to Capitol Hill for meetings with 36 Democratic and Republican members in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on key education issues.

The summit was the first time a group of this scale – including more than 55 distinguished speakers and panelists – has convened to discuss how expanded learning can help close the opportunity gap for our nation’s young people. We had a range of thought leaders and policy makers participate, including our chairman, Dr. Larry Summers; the Mayor of Washington D.C.; Wendy Spencer; the Deputy Mayor of New York; a representative from the George Bush Center, and literally dozens of the “best and the brightest” in our field.

We were honored to receive a special message from President Obama himself. “Events like this summit,” he wrote, “bring together those of us working on the front lines to make better use of educational time… If our next generation is going to meet the challenges of this century, they will need more time in the classroom.”

We are deeply grateful to all of those who participated in the summit, and to the many supporters and convenors who made this event possible. They are all highlighted on our event website. We are committed to the thousands of children whom we serve, and to growing the field of expanded learning. We believe that last week’s activities were critical in advancing this agenda.

As we recognize our 20 years of service, the Expanded Learning Summit highlights how much more there is to do in our next phase. In the coming days, we’ll continue to share opportunities to engage with these important ideas, including archived video from all summit sessions.

Yours in service,

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CEO, Citizen Schools

P.S. We welcome your support to help more students across the country build the skills, access, and beliefs required for them to thrive as students and succeed as adults.

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Citizen Schools' Champions Advocate for Expanded Learning and AmeriCorps in Washington D.C.

Working as a non-profit partner to public schools across the country, Citizen Schools sees the many ways that public policies affect children, families, and teachers. So as a way of making a systemic impact on education beyond the handful of districts where we serve, we pull together a group of diverse stakeholders from a variety of cities and spend a day in Washington, D.C., meeting as many of our elected representatives as we can.

On Thursday, April 10, after an inspiring day meeting one another and taking a crash course in lobbying, 25 Citizen Schools leaders, seven middle school students, one school principal, and 14 representatives from corporate partners, such as Fidelity Investments, whose employees volunteer as Citizen Teachers descended on Capitol Hill.

Throughout the day the state teams met with congressional offices to discuss the impact of Citizen Schools in their districts and the success of Citizen Schools’ students. Their goal: to urge legislators to support expanded learning time (ELT), which helps public schools provide the academic and enrichment that middle schools in low-income communities need, and AmeriCorps, whose service members make expanded learning programs possible.

Left to right: Schmid Elementary School 8th grader Darnell and Principal Ron Simmons speak with Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton

This year, the fifth advocacy day that Citizen Schools has organized, teams from the seven states where Citizen Schools operates (California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Texas) hustled through the hallways of the Senate and House Office Buildings, meeting in a total of 38 different offices.

The Illinois group included Rona Simmons, principal of Citizen Schools partner Schmid Elementary in Chicago, IL. She brought along a Chicago 8th grade student, Darnell, who was not only a first-time visitor to Washington D.C., but also a first-time air traveler.

He and his fellow students soon went from sightseers to advocates, sharing their personal experiences with expanded learning time provided by Citizen Schools. In a meeting with Senator Edward Markey’s (MA) office, a Boston 8th grader named Jonathan expressed his interest in becoming a lawyer and opening his own law firm someday. Senator Markey’s Senior Advisor, John Phillips, was so impressed with Jonathan that he asked him if he would be interested in a summer internship at their Boston office.

Left to right: Citizen Schools Massachusetts Executive Director Tom Birmingham, Boston 8th grader Jonathan, and Senator Markey's representative

Jonathan took diligent notes during the luncheon keynote address by Jim Shelton, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

“We don’t often see innovation in education,” said Shelton. “This is where expanded learning time comes in. Doing the same thing during the longer day is not the way to get breakthroughs. That’s where organizations like Citizen Schools come in. This is a model that has started to see results, proving that it is better than the status quo.”

The assembled Citizen Schools staff and partners also had the chance to hear remarks from Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA). Senator Warren was introduced by Yosef, a 6th grader from Chelsea, MA. Yosef shared what he learned in a Citizen Schools “apprenticeship” class on financial literacy that was inspired by the 50/30/20 framework from Senator Warren’s book All Your Worth. He learned about future career paths and how students can budget their potential incomes, and shared with Senator Warren, his plan to save for college to achieve his goal of becoming a teacher.

Senator Elizabeth Warren and Chelsea, MA 6th grader Yosef

The Senator was impressed. “Citizen Schools is doing great work in Massachusetts and across the country complementing the learning that happens in the traditional school day,” she said. “High-quality expanded learning time helps students succeed in school and outside the classroom, and innovative programs like Citizen Schools can play an important role as part of addressing our nation’s educational challenges.”

The group of Citizen Schools champions spoke from many points of view--some as business-people, some as educators, some as ordinary constituents who know what their communities need. They hoped to convey to their representatives that their interests converge in public school classrooms, where the next generation of citizens are building the skills and beliefs they’ll need to lead and thrive. The meetings were most compelling when the students shared their experiences, discovering their dreams, and the paths to achieving them in schools that expanded their access to opportunities.

Those opportunities can be further enabled through good educational policy, and that’s why we took the message to the Hill. But one impact we’re sure of: with the support of Senator Warren, Deputy Secretary Shelton, and many congressional offices and leaders, we ended our time on the Hill with renewed excitement and passion for the work we lead and the students we serve.

Why I Became an Advocate

Michele Ahouse is the National Director of Citizen Teacher Engagement at Citizen Schools. 

Policy was never my thing. When I met my now mother-in-law, one of her first questions was how many times I had voted in elections. I smiled politely and nodded, thinking that in the great state of Massachusetts, my vote wasn’t going to swing anything one way or another. Wasn’t my voice just lumped in with everyone else’s?

Throughout my time as a volunteer Citizen Teacher for Citizen Schools teaching multiple apprenticeship classes, I took a similar approach to action alerts and policy messages that landed in my inbox. Occasionally, I would click the “Send a message to my Congressman” where I would find a nicely written message. All I needed to do was type my zip code in and bam, it was submitted.

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Within seconds, an automated “out-of-office” like email would come back from my senator telling me he agreed with my thoughts on “x”-initiative and really appreciated my voice. Sure. Whatever. I believed in the change, but I didn’t think my little voice resonated at all. I was not a phone caller, a picketer or any of those other seemingly attention-grabbing policy wonks.

Fast forward five years to my current position here at Citizen Schools as the National Director of Citizen Teacher Engagement. During my first month, I had a call with our Executive Director of Public Policy and Communications to find out more about our policy initiatives as it related to Citizen Teachers. I was dreading the call, because I knew I would have to fess up about my lack of faith in policy. But I also felt like it could be a real learning tool, because frankly, I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt this way.

Over the course of the hour, she proceeded to take me through a grassroots Policy 101 session - explaining that despite the impersonal nature of the responses, it was actually someone's (and often multiple staffers') job to count and report back to our representatives on responses they received from emails, phone calls, social media and visits.

More importantly, the more responses something got, the more attention a representative gives to the matter because his/her job is to be a representative of the people. And despite whatever concerns we have about  the current climate in Washington, when it comes down to it, we elect our representatives and that is our strongest voice.

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I had the privilege to take part in our annual Hill Day event on March 21 and actually see this all in action. This day is when Citizen Schools representatives - staff, board members, student alumni and Citizen Teachers - from all eight of our states go to Capitol Hill to meet with our representatives.

We spoke with a range of politicians- Senators, Representatives, aides and even Minority Leaders Pelosi and McConnell. We talked about the impact of Citizen Schools in their districts, the success our students experienced as a result of the program, the important work AmeriCorps members are doing throughout the community, as well as the potential for the future of education. I even saw staff answering phones and actually writing down tallies for support/dissent on policies.

In some meetings, we encountered vigorous head-nodding agreement; in others, it was a learning experience for both sides. For me personally, it was a fantastic experience to be there, having real-time discussions about the impact of sequestration, this abstract but constant buzz word that had surrounded me for the past 2 months. We strategized ways to preserve the funding and support that makes Citizen Schools be able to provide middle school students with the opportunity to realize and achieve their dreams. Most of all, we shared stories and gave a voice to the students who we serve, to the staff and volunteers who help our students achieve success.

I walked away from the day feeling empowered and full of promise. I felt like my voice was heard and we achieved something. We are currently working with schedulers for our representatives to get visits on the books for this spring to see our students and apprenticeships in action. I’m eagerly anticipating these, as I know seeing our students, staff and volunteers in action will bring to reality the importance of education support.

The cherry on top - March 21 was my mother-in-law’s birthday. When I texted her a quick “Happy Birthday” early that morning and told her what I was doing, she promptly responded back, “You’ve come a long way baby.” Have I ever!