Beyond the Basics

Now in NYC, Citizen Schools offers volunteers, offbeat instruction

A Boston-based program that pairs adult mentors with middle school students who want to learn how to design video games or launch a business is now bringing its brand of mentoring to New York City kids.

Citizen Schools, a decade-old organization that facilitates apprenticeships for students in almost 20 cities nationwide, set up shop at four middle schools this year, two each in Brooklyn and East Harlem. At each school, the organization is offering professional instruction, an after-school program, and classroom support, according to Nitzan Pelman, Citizen Schools’ New York City executive director.

The centerpiece of Citizen Schools’ programming is the apprenticeship, in which adult volunteers spend 12 weeks teaching students about a particular subject before the students present their work to a panel of experts on that subject. The presentations take place at an event called WOW!, named, Pelman told me, for the typical reaction of audience members.

In city schools this fall, apprenticeships offered instruction in dozens of subjects, including Celtic dancing, skateboarding, cooking, a documentary filmmaking. When I visited the Urban Assembly Academy for Arts and Letters in Brooklyn last month, I saw students rehearsing a group poem about expression and creativity, putting the finishing touches on memoirs they wrote with the help of journalists, and preparing to share what they had learned about the credit crisis.

At IS 45 in East Harlem, investment banker Gregory Mark Hill helped lead an apprenticeship titled “How to Make a Profit.” Hill said he started a foundation to support education, but because he views middle school as “an inflection point” in kids’ lives, he wanted to have a bigger impact.

“It’s one thing to write checks, attend black ties, and another thing to roll up your sleeves,” he told me.

Hill described working with students as a natural extension of his role teaching clients about investments.

But one of Citizen Schools’ major challenges is to prepare professionals, who often lack teaching experience, for the classroom. Pelman said all mentors participate in a 3-hour workshop where they set a goal for their students’ WOW! presentations and then work backwards to decide what they need to teach the students to prepare them.

Citizen Schools provides students more than just apprenticeships. The after-school program also includes help with homework, extra math and reading practice, field trips, and other activities such as sports. And volunteers and paid teaching fellows, usually freshly minted college graduates who want to explore a career in education, help out in classrooms throughout the day, ensuring continuity between academic instruction and Citizen Schools’ after-school program.

It’s one of Citizen Schools’ goals to encourage that kind of continuity, Pelman told me, adding that the four pilot schools in New York were chosen carefully from among dozens that applied in part because they were committed to integrating school-day and after-school programming.

The program charges $25,000 per school. Pelman said principals are usually able to use federal grant money for after-school programs to pay Citizen Schools, and she said the city Department of Education’s new middle school improvement grants could also enable needy schools to purchase the program. Citizen Schools plans to expand to one additional city school in the fall.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.