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Eric Schwarz and Citizen Schools give inner-city kids a leg up

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The idea is to level the playing field for students who grow up in low-income households.

"In this country we have a growing achievement gap based on family income. It's actually a bigger gap than it was 50 years ago," Schwarz says in an interview at the Citizen Schools headquarters in a renovated brick building on Boston's waterfront, just one pier away from the replica of the historical Boston Tea Party ship. "The reason is, I think, is not that poor kids are learning less, but that rich kids are learning more because their families are giving them all these opportunities to get violin lessons, go to robotics camp, get extra coaching and tutoring, and have lots of chances to be [around] successful adults.

"Those opportunities are incredibly unequally provided in our society, and Citizen Schools changes that."

A "second shift" of Citizen Schools instructors take over at middle schools (sixth to eighth grade) around 2:30 p.m. when the normal school day ends. For three additional hours teachers from AmeriCorps and volunteer mentors from the business community help students keep learning. Most of the time that means shoving the blackboard aside and giving students hands-on experiences that will fire up their imaginations.

Over its 18 years Citizen Schools has invited to be mentors dancers, children's book authors, bike repair experts, engineers, journalists, filmmakers, photographers, carpenters, lawyers, architects, "every profession you can imagine," says Schwarz, who is the group's cofounder and chief executive.

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