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5 Questions for...Eric Schwarz, Co-Founder and CEO, Citizen Schools

March 26, 2014

Established in 1995, Citizen Schools works to help children, especially those from low-income backgrounds, discover and achieve their dreams. To that end, the Citizen Schools model is focused on partnering with middle schools to extend the traditional school day by a few hours and augmenting traditional classroom instruction with a combination of intensive academic support and a range of enrichment and youth development activities. Currently active in seven states, the organization also offers project-based courses led by volunteer "Citizen Teachers" who, outside of school, are scientists, engineers, artists, lawyers, and business leaders.

Earlier this month, PND spoke with the organization's co-founder and CEO, Eric Schwarz, about the Citizen Teacher concept and the scalability of the Citizens Schools model.

Headshot_eric_schwarzPhilanthropy News Digest: When and where did the "Citizen Teacher" concept emerge? Is it something you and your colleagues developed, or is it something you kind of grabbed hold of and made your own?

Eric Schwarz: Well, men­tor­ing and volunteering and apprenticeships have been around for thousands of years. If you think about law and medicine, it's how much of the training happens to this day: you get young professionals training under older professionals in a kind of apprentice­ship model.

The insight we came to almost twenty years ago was that for most low-income kids enrolled in a K-12 school in the United States, the school experience had become disconnected from the real world. Many of these kids had never met someone from a fast-growing profession like engin­eering, and so their chances of growing up and becoming an engineer was close to zero. So we developed a model that made it easier for engineers and lawyers and others to connect with kids directly and do hands-on experien­tial projects with them.

I'm happy to say, the results have been terrific. We've found that Citizen Schools narrows, in most cases eliminates, and sometimes even reverses the achievement gap between middle-income and low-income kids. We're also seeing significantly higher high school and college graduation rates, which means we’re putting kids on a path to success. That's very exciting.

We've also learned that we’re actually making a big difference in the lives of our volunteers. In fact, we commissioned a business school professor from the University of Vermont, David Jones, to do a study of the program's impact on volunteers. And what he found is that there's a significant impact in terms of volunteers feeling better about their companies. They’re happy their company has sponsored or approached them about taking some flex time to give back to the community, and they're usually delighted that they have a chance to build their dele­gation skills, teamwork skills, and coaching skills.

PND: Do you see citizen-teachers as filling a gap in public education, as complementing classroom instruc­tion, or doing a little of both?

ES: The Citizen Schools model is designed to support teachers and public schools by adding three hours to the learning day, every day of the week, all year long. It's a significant extension of the learning day from a six- or seven-hour day to a nine- to ten-hour day. And bringing real-world experiential activities to kids in school is an important complement to the learning that goes on. Think of it this way: if math instruction is limited to a teacher at a blackboard — these days, maybe it's a whiteboard — explaining and talking about concepts, but you, the student, don't have a sense of how those concepts connect to the real world, it's much more likely you're going to tune out and disengage from that class and maybe even from school. Citizen Schools gives kids a sense of how to actually use algebraic concepts in designing a video game, or how, when you're presenting the opening argument in a trial, you want to lead with a topic sentence and then back it up with specific examples. Those kinds of things reinforce what teachers teach, and at the same they tend to motivate students to care more about doing well. It's a terrific comple­ment to what already is happening in public schools across the country.

PND: You're in seven states right now, and you're looking to expand the number of Citizens School sites by another 50 percent over the next four years. How scalable is the Citizens School model, and what are some of the obstacles to scaling the model to every state and low-income community?

ES: I think Citizen Schools and programs like it can and should become the new normal in American education. As a country, we are not going to successfully address the opportunity and achievement gaps that are widening with each passing year unless we are able to give all disadvantaged students what Citizen Schools gives its students: a lot more learning time, a lot more opportunity to practice and perfect their academics, and a lot more chances to experience success through hands-on, real-world projects led by successful profes­sionals. Our goal is to scale the Citizens School model significantly, in both the short- and long-term, and to build a movement dedicated to making high-quality expanded-learning time the new normal in schools across the country.

We're starting to see that happen. New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey all have initiatives sponsored by their respective governors to grow expanded-learning time. President Obama has made ex­panded-learning time a priority as part of the U.S. Department of Education's school turnaround efforts. And in New York City, Mayor De Blasio has called for an extended day for all middle school students. It's really exciting to see the movement grow and become integrated into educational improvement efforts. Now the question is, How do we do it in a quality way?

PND: And what's the answer?

ES: One of the big challenges is financial, and that always comes down to pol­itics. In the public education arena, next year's budget historically is the same as last year's budget, plus a couple percent. There's a lot of inertia, and there's not enough of an effort to really find out what's working and put more money behind things that are working well. What we're hoping to do is convince states and school districts to put a larger portion of their budget behind expanded-learning time models like ours that are already working well. That’s how we’ve been able to expand to the thirteen school districts in seven states, and that’s a reason why we're in conversation now with a number of districts about how we can get our program to a majority of or even all the middle school kids in those districts.

PND: Is there a tipping point where the value of your model, in however many districts, has been demonstrated beyond a doubt and it just sort of takes off?

ES: That’s a great question. I think there is. I don't know what the exact number is, but I think if we can get to the point where at least 15 to 20 percent of the schools in a district are doing high-quality extended-learning time and delivering great results, then the remaining 80 percent will say, "Wow, we want that, too." And I suspect that if we can get twenty or thirty communities — East Coast, West Coast, North, South, small and big, blue states and red — to embrace expanded-learning time and they start to see the results, it will be such a strong proof of concept that it will invariably build demand across the country for an expanded-learning day augmented by a lot more hands-on learning.

Matt Sinclair

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