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.

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.