A conversation with Eric Schwarz about the evolution of Citizen Schools

Reflecting on incremental and disruptive change in school and out: A conversation with Eric Schwarz about the evolution of Citizen Schools

Eric Schwarz

Eric Schwarz

I had a recent conversation with Eric Schwarz about the evolution of Citizen Schools. Eric is the founder of Citizen Schools and author of The Opportunity Equation: How Citizen Teachers Are Combating the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools. Citizen Schools began in 1995 in Boston as an afterschool program designed to provide opportunities for students in low-income communities to participate in apprenticeships with mentors from a wide range of professions. Since that time, it has grown into a national organization that partners with public middle schools to integrate apprenticeships and other rich learning opportunities into a longer school day. While Citizen Schools works only in the United States, the evolution of the Citizen Schools model illustrates broader questions of educational change and innovation that are relevant around the world. In this post, you can listen to the interview, get a summary my conversation with Eric, and see slides(below) I developed for my class on school change that highlight issues of “incremental” and “disruptive” change and innovation. See weeks 2 and 3 of the online syllabus for related references and resources, including readings by David Tyack and Larry Cuban, and Clayton Christensen.  

Citizen Schools 1.0: “Apprenticeships are core”

When Schwarz first started working on the ideas that led to Citizen Schools, his key concerns included the limited access that many students in lower income communities have to the kind of rich and extended learning opportunities commonplace in many upper income communities. In order to address this problem, Eric and his colleagues created an afterschool program that engaged students from several middle schools in low-income communities in activities like producing a newspaper in which they worked with volunteer mentors – “citizen teachers” – from related professions. The program took place in the schools, for a few hours a week, with a little time devoted to tutoring and help with homework, but with the main focus on the apprenticeships.

Schwarz explained that in the early years, the work was challenging, but the feedback from many parents and students was powerful. At the same time, some of the same parents who saw these benefits also raised concerns that there was no corresponding improvement in most students’ grades or academic performance. In some cases, parents wanted to take their children out of the program because they felt that they needed more help with their school work. In addition, principals who were providing Citizen Schools with space also wanted to see more academic benefits. As Schwarz put it in The Opportunity Equation, with increasing pressure on schools and principals from new state policies demanding improved performance, some principals had “less tolerance for our rookie mistakes and seemed in some cases to lose their appetite for the enrichment-based learning we were offering.” (p. 63)

Citizen Schools 2.0: Supporting academic development

In response to the feedback they were getting, Schwarz and his colleagues decided to refine the Citizen Schools model. They wanted to remain focused on apprenticeships, but also chose to make support for academic development a more explicit goal and aspect of the design.  To do so, they started offering the program on an almost daily basis, substantially increasing the amount of programming they could offer. They continued to offer the apprenticeships but also significantly increased the time they spent working with students on homework and tutoring. In order to staff those additional hours, however, they also had to change their staffing model and, in addition to the Citizen teachers, they brought in AmeriCorp volunteers to work in the program on a regular basis, and they also hired program directors to work on full-time rather than half-time. With these changes, students continued to report powerful experiences, but the grades and test scores of many of the students improved as well. As Schwarz explained, “The schools changed us in a good way–they made us better academically.”

Citizen Schools 3.0: The extended learning time edition

Citizen Schools continued to expand its afterschool model in Boston and then to a few other cities, but then in 2006, Citizen Schools had the opportunity to partner with The Edwards School as part of a pilot program in Massachusetts to support schools in developing Extended Learning Time (ELT) models. The approach to ELT developed at the Edwards School built on the Citizen School’s approach, but it also had to respond to local circumstances at the Edwards that influenced their design and that made it different from many other ELT models. In particular, rather than simply adding the Citizen Schools afterschool program onto the end of the school day, they integrated the apprenticeship approach and the added help with academics into the regular school day. As a consequence, the school was able to offer a 2 hour “elective/apprenticeship block” four days a week, add a regular 60 min “math league”, and provide time for a half-day of professional development for teachers every Friday. To make that possible, Citizen Schools provided the staff for many of the apprenticeships/electives, but Citizen Schools staff also took on responsibility for teaching some academic subjects, particularly, math. While progress was slow at first, eventually there were clear signs of significant improvements. In addition to offering increased instructional and enrichment programs, there improvements in test scores including an 80% reduction in achievement gap between students’ performance in ELA and science on state tests. Furthermore, while only 17 families in 2005 made the Edwards School their first choice on the application asking which middle school they would like the children to attend, in 2008 over 450 families applied to the school (see The Opportunity Equation, p. 92).

Citizen Schools 4.0: Spreading the model and reshaping thinking about “after” school

With the development of the ELT model and some success both at the Edwards School and in other schools where they tried the ELT approach, questions of how to scale the model came to the forefront. Correspondingly, one key part of the work since that time has been to build an organization capable of spreading the model to other schools. However, as Schwarz explained, the current model is very intensive, requiring significant staffing, time and resources. As he put it, it might be possible to develop the model in a hundred schools, but probably not a thousand. In response, Citizen Schools has also begun exploring other options to support further spread. In particular, they have started to work more broadly in collaboration with government agencies and policymakers to create programs and resources that can support ELT models and afterschool programs in general. Further, they are partnering with private and public organizations and networks to advocate for the development of more ELT models and to develop a broader vision for how learning time can be used both in schools and after school.

The development of Citizen Schools to this point illustrates the ways in which changes and innovations in education evolve between and among organizations and schools. In this case, the Citizen Schools model adapted in response to the challenges and opportunities encountered when working with and in schools during after-school and in-school time. While the integration of the Citizen Schools approach into the regular school day may not have disrupted many of the conventional structures and patterns in schools, learning opportunities for students have expanded. Further, one can argue that Citizen Schools has, at least to some extent, “disrupted” conventional views of after school programs and now provides a different model for afterschool programs as well as an existence proof that that model can be effective. At the same time, the efforts to disrupt the conventional institutions, structures, and beliefs that reinforce inequalities in access to educational opportunities continue. While Eric has stepped down as CEO of Citizen Schools, which is now led by Steven Rothstein, he plans to turn his attention to new work, perhaps in higher education.

Slides: hatch citizen schools

 
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