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."
Citizens Schools is teaming with the White House to design a national model in which top Silicon Valley companies would encourage their employees to put 20 or more hours a year into volunteering with kids. For many Citizen Schools volunteers, Schwarz points out, "it's the highlight of their week, a chance to get out of their offices, go into some urban school across town, and work with [a classroom of] 12- or 13-year-olds on some really cool projects."
The program produces measurable success. While 33 percent of eighth-graders around the country say they are interested in STEM careers, 80 percent of students who participate in a STEM apprenticeship through Citizen Schools say they are interested in STEM careers.
The program is also opening a lot of adult eyes to new ways of thinking about education.
"As we've been able to prove more and more impact, and prove that this ... is actually changing schools and changing kids' lives, and leading to a 20 percent jump in graduation rates, and erasing the achievement gap between low-income and suburban kids, that has caught the attention of political leaders on both sides of the aisle and business leaders," Schwarz says.