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

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"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.

Classes can even involve rocket science. When an adult mentor comes in and helps students launch their own model rocket, he points out, they are forced to think about scientific concepts like velocity, resistance, and gravity if they want to succeed. "And that motivates kids to want to do the hard math" behind the experiment, Schwarz says.

In recent years, in fact, so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) programs have become part of the core Citizen Schools experience. "Half of our [programs] are in the STEM area," he says.

"We think it's particularly important to give low-income kids access to STEM professions," Schwarz says. Adult mentors teach students how to design video games, conduct experiments, and design websites. It gives students the opportunity to "see the connection between school and a career, and to get excited about STEM careers."

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