Skilled Volunteers and Mentors Helping Improve Student Performance

President Obama is committed to raising America’s game in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. As the President said at the launch of his Educate to Innovate campaign to improve STEM education, "I want us all to think about new and creative ways to engage young people in science and engineering, whether it's science festivals, robotics competitions, fairs that encourage young people to create and build and invent—to be makers of things, not just consumers of things."

I recently spoke with Eric Schwarz, co-founder and CEO of Citizen Schools, and Leo Flanagan, principal of the Clarence Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, MA, a neighborhood of Boston. Since 2006, Citizen Schools has partnered with the Edwards Middle School as an expanded learning time partner to lengthen the school day by three hours a day and bring in a hundreds of volunteers to teach apprenticeships. Citizen Schools partners with over thirty schools in eight states across the country.  As part of thinking about new ways to engage young people in STEM education, I’m particularly interested in the role that skilled volunteers and mentors can play in improving student performance.

Can you tell me about the mission and model of Citizen Schools?

Eric Schwarz: Our mission is to close the opportunity and achievement gaps and our strategy for doing that is to give kids more time to learn and practice academic skills, but also get the chance to be successful with successful adults. Our “special sauce” is a modern form of apprenticeships where middle school kids – we focus on the middle school grades as we know it’s a critical turning point for most kids – get the chance to work with talented adults from the community to make cool things. So, architects may be teaching kids to redesign their school, engineers from Google are working with kids to build robots and design apps, and volunteers from Cognizant are teaching kids about LEDs, Parallel Circuits, and Conductive Threads.

What are some of the main benefits of involving skilled volunteers in education, both in STEM and other areas?

Eric Schwarz: One of the main benefits is that it allows you to stretch the school day without burning out teachers who are working a long day already. Schools are able to add more time for students to learn without putting more on the backs of those teachers already working so hard. But, it also allows for students to work elbow to elbow with successful professionals from all kinds of fields and careers. With that, students begin to picture themselves as a scientist or engineer. They also begin to see the relevance to their coursework and the connection to a job in a lab or a law firm. Most importantly, students get a chance to be successful. Kids in upper and middle class families are exposed to a dazzling array of opportunities to learn – lessons, coaching, afterschool and summer programs. Unfortunately, kids in less affluent families don’t often have the same opportunities.  If families and schools offer enough opportunities to kids, they will find what it is that they are passionate about and begin to experience success, ultimately developing the muscle memory of success.

What are some barriers professionals may face when they contact schools and look to get involved?

Schwarz: There are a few barriers that they may face. The first would be curriculum – how and what to teach. Another might be training – how to work with a team of adolescent kids, particularly those kids struggling in school and potentially disengaged. Finally, school structure could be a barrier. Schools aren’t generally set up to engage volunteers in this way. Citizen Schools creates the structure and connective tissue between the kids, schools and volunteers. We have a nearly limitless supply of kids who want to be engaged and learn. There are thousands of schools that need this and millions of adults who might like to volunteer, but you need a structure to make it all work.

What are the key elements of the “connective tissue” that successfully brokers relationships?

Schwarz:First, for us, it’s AmeriCorps. Through AmeriCorps, we have over 200 full-time recent college graduates who are working long hours in schools with kids. They know the teachers, talk to parents at night, and also work with those professionals who are volunteering their time. So, we are able to leverage these 200+ national service volunteers to train and support well over 4,000 professionals who volunteer to teach kids.  

Secondly, we have hundreds of example curricula that are aligned with the common core standards available. These detailed, 11-session curricula have been tried and tested. Finally, training and support is critical. The professionals who come to us to volunteer receive five hours of training and support from our staff throughout their experience.

Tell me about dramatic improvements at the Edwards Middle School.

Leo Flanagan: Five years ago, the Edwards Middle School had the lowest test scores in the school district. The school was an early adopter of expanded learning time. Citizen Schools came on as one of initial partners to help us lengthen the school day, assuming responsibility of the extra hours for all sixth graders. In the extra hours, students receive more time for academic prep as well as a wide array of enrichment programs, including Citizen Schools apprenticeships for the sixth graders and courses from step dancing to rock band for our seventh and eighth graders.

The impact has been tremendous. Our student achievement scores have soared, we received awards, and after Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, visited our school, she said in the New York Times that we were, “one of the best schools she had ever seen.”

What is your strategy for taking advantage of the willingness of professionals to volunteer and help make a difference for kids?

Flanagan: In my experience, urban kids are often disconnected from the narrative of success. They don’t always have adults around them who are successful professionally. Ask them what they want to do when they grow up and they are likely to tell you they want to be in the NBA or be a rap star because they have some sort of narrative and context for that.

What Citizen Schools does is actually place our urban and poor kids who may not speak English in the narrative of success. We have kids who crush these tests, but they still need this other piece to believe that they belong in the professional world. More than anything else, they need the belief that they can be an engineer or lawyer. They need people they know and work with.  It takes an engineer at an engineering firm to get them to believe that they, too, belong there and they can do whatever they want to do. With that, those fields and new worlds open up to kids.

Schwarz: Data from ACT shows that only one-third of 8th graders are interested in STEM majors and careers, a finding that underscores the importance of engaging students in activities designed to increase interest levels in STEM during the middle school years, when career awareness and interest take shape and begin to solidify. Citizen Schools data, on the other hand, shows that approximately 80% of our students who participate in STEM apprenticeships are interested in pursuing STEM college majors and careers.

One story that might highlight why this is the case is the story of David Mantus. Dave’s dad was an engineer who worked on the Apollo Project. He grew up launching rockets in his backyard and was set on a path to a STEM career early through exposure and experiences. Now, he’s a biotech bigwig with a PhD in the STEM field.

Dave has taught an apprenticeship called “It IS Rocket Science” eight times at the Edwards Middle School. He’s worked to give the students similar experiences to those he had growing up. They’ve launched rockets in the school parking lot and video conferenced with NASA astronauts from the Challenger Learning Center to do a simulated lunar landing .These types of experiences and connections to individuals like Dave are changing the equation for our students.

Any stories of individuals that have been affected?

Flanagan: Sure, there are many! A student named Marcos talks about how his experience with Citizen Schools has made an impact on him. Through an apprenticeship, Marcos has designed and built his own bike. He’s raved about the experience of building something and even the exercise he got using the bike. He enjoyed tinkering and figuring out how things work. He’s said that before he did this apprenticeship, he wouldn’t have be the kind of person who would take things apart and fix them. That kind of change in thinking is huge for our kids.


You can listen to Citizen Schools alumnus MacCalvin Romain share a similar experience here.

Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Policy at OSTP

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