The Case for AfterSchool Learning

In most ways, it looked like just another day at the new federal courthouse in downtown Boston.

On a recent afternoon in one of the cavernous building’s wood-paneled courtrooms, Judge Joseph L. Tauro called the proceedings in a civil case to order, addressing each of the smartly dressed lawyers as “Mr.” or “Ms.” The attorneys made their opening statements, performed both direct- and cross-examinations of witnesses, and referred carefully to notes on their yellow legal pads.

But what was different about this day was that Judge Tauro was presiding over a mock trial in which the plaintiff and the defendant were fictional and the “lawyers” were not members of the bar but 11- and 12-year-olds from Boston. Indeed, the courtroom’s solemn mood broke into hearty laughter when, as the assembled parties waited for the verdict, one boy raised his hand and asked if they couldn’t all have a recess because he needed to go to the bathroom.

The mock trial marked the culmination of weeks of work the nine middle schoolers had been doing as apprentices to real attorney volunteers from the law firm Goodwin, Procter & Hoar. What made it possible is a program called Citizen Schools. Founded in Boston in 1995 by a couple of guys who used to be roommates at the University of Vermont, the non-profit program brings together “citizen teachers,” whether auto mechanics or lawyers, with students ages 9 to 14 for “apprenticeships.” In groups of seven or eight, the youngsters are matched with at least two adults to learn how to cook, write a play, or create a PowerPoint computer presentation.

During the school year, Citizen Schools is an after-school program run three or four days a week on 10 public school campuses citywide, each serving 60 to 100 children. In the summer, the kids go all day, every day, and are fed breakfast, lunch, and a snack. Tuition is charged–about $200 per child for the school year on a sliding scale–but it amounts to only a small fraction of the true cost of the program, which runs about $1,600 per child for the school year or $1,000 in the summer. The rest of Citizen Schools’ projected $2.1 million in revenues this year comes from foundation grants, corporate and individual donations, and some government funding.

Most of the children who attend Citizen Schools, 90 percent of whom are low-and-moderate income kids from Boston, would never otherwise have a chance to set foot in the architecturally stunning new federal courthouse–let alone quiz a federal judge about his career highlights and have their pictures taken with him.

That’s exactly the idea, says Eric Schwarz, Citizen Schools’ co-founder and president. The program wants to “open up Boston’s resources to Boston’s kids,” he says. But it’s even more ambitious than that. Citizen Schools also wants to raise the bar on the quality of after-school programs generally and create a model that can eventually be rolled out to other Massachusetts communities and perhaps nationwide.

“We feel that, for too long, after-school programs have set a pretty low standard for themselves,” says Schwarz. “The rallying cry has been to keep kids off the street. Put them in a gym, roll out a basketball, give them some graham crackers, maybe a little bit of quiet time for their homework, but not a whole lot more that that. And the results have been mixed because of that. Middle-school kids, in particular, have dropped out of those programs and have been wanting something more exciting, more interesting.”

“After-school programs have set a pretty low standard for themselves.”

Citizen Schools is also answering a need for middle school age children, especially, to be occupied during their out-of-school time. As a matter of public policy, this issue is getting more attention nationally, and for good reason, says Jennifer Davis, the executive director of the Boston 2:00-to-6:00 After-School Initiative launched by Mayor Tom Menino in 1998. “All of the data show delinquent behavior, drug use, smoking, pregnancy, crime” occur after school, she says, “and it all has to do with the fact kids are not in constructive, supervised activities.”

The mock trial at the federal courthouse is about as far as you can get from sex, drugs, basketball, or graham crackers. In this well-appointed courtroom designed as a temple to justice, the kids stand up straight in their dark suits and, reading from legal pads, fire off terms like “pervasive” and “subjectively offensive.” The case they’ve chosen involves a (fictional) middle-school girl suing the school district because her school failed to stop the sexual harassment she said she was suffering at the hands of a male student.

Alisha Wallace, 11, who represented the school district, said her favorite part of the experience was the fact that the trial was so much like “the real thing”–in a real courtroom before a real judge. The sixth-grader at private Epiphany Middle School in Dorchester pronounced the whole thing “cool.” Asked earlier what she would be doing this summer if she weren’t in Citizen Schools, Alisha replied she would be “being lazy,” hanging out with her friends in Southie. Is this better than that? “Yes and no,” she answers candidly, but she said she would recommend the program to other kids.

Meanwhile, Phillip Cadet, 11, who acted as a lawyer for the plaintiff girl and whose cross-examination of one of the defense witnesses was positively withering, said he liked the real-life sentencing that the students had caught prior to the start of their own mock trial. But the law is not in the Woodrow Wilson School sixth-grader’s future. At first, practicing for the mock trial had made being a lawyer attractive, he said, but he changed his mind after he “got too nervous” in the courtroom. Instead, Phillip plans to become an astronaut. “I want to be the first person on Mars,” he said.

Many experts argue such hands-on, real-world experiences are missing from the public schools nationwide, not just in Boston. Part of what Citizen Schools aims to do is to create an after-school experience that has more relevance to children than academic drills but that builds skills and self-confidence nonetheless. The idea is for the program to keep adolescents engaged enough so that they keep coming back as well as make them more aware of their community and their responsibilities as citizens. Schwarz likes to flip the overused dictum “It takes a village to raise a child” around by arguing, “It takes a child to create a healthy village.”

And it’s not just the children who get something out of the program, Schwarz says. “What we’ve found is the professionals and the tradespeople and the artisans who get a chance through Citizen Schools to work with kids enrich their lives incredibly,” he says. “They come away with a bigger sense of their role in trying to build a better community.”

At the same time that they push good citizenship for the kids and their adult mentors, those who run Citizen Schools know they are working with many children who are falling short of their potential academically. According to May 1998 results from the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, only about 30 percent of Boston public school eighth-graders scored at the proficient or advanced levels (about grade level or above) in English language arts, and that number plummeted to 14 percent in math and 9 percent in science and technology. So, Citizen Schools purposefully works on boosting kids’ literacy–in most apprenticeships students keep journals–and math skills, and their work is aligned with the increasingly ambitious goals and standards of the Boston school system.

But they don’t stop there, Schwarz says. “We’re about building kids’ ability to work on teams, to solve problems together, and present information orally–which are all things you need to do, both to do well in school, and more importantly, things you need to do well in life.” He adds: “So, instead of learning to write by writing paragraphs out of a book, learn how to write by publishing a newspaper. Instead of learning math through filling out worksheets, learn math by having to come up with the business plan for a T-shirt business.”

Even during a morning exercise on the playground at the James A. Garfield School in Brighton, the children are expected to work on their public speaking. The program’s daily “morning circle,” which gathers that campus’s 40 or so Citizen Schools’ participants, recently featured a “press conference.” Visitors to the campus stood in the center of the circle, and the kids lobbed questions at them. If the children cannot be heard, a chorus of snapping fingers ensues as a signal they need to speak up loud and clear.

During a tour of the Citizen Schools site at the Wilson School in Dorchester, Karlton Howard, 14, showed off what he learned in his computer repair apprenticeship. With the guts of a personal computer’s CPU laid out on a table, Karlton described how it was put together: hard drive, RAM, game board. Karlton, who is in the ninth grade at Newton South High School, said he had “no idea” how to fix a computer before his training. Now, with the nonchalant tone of an old hand, he says, “It’s very easy–not complicated at all.” Later, Karlton adds that he thinks a summer at Citizen Schools is better than going to some camp where you play catch or something. “This camp helps you prepare for the next grade.”

That kind of feedback must be gratifying to Schwarz and his former roommate Ned Rimer, an educator and non-profit manager, who came up with the idea because they wanted to make a difference in education. The former executive director of City Year Boston, the flagship program of the national service organization, Schwarz says he and Rimer, now both 38, didn’t start out to be providers of an after-school program. But the pair wanted to “come up with a model that would help educate kids while it was helping strengthen communities,” Schwarz says. They realized that children spend far more of their waking hours out of school than in it and that after-school programs were a place where they could make a dent in children’s experiences without taking on the public school bureaucracy.

Schwarz developed the concept of Citizen Schools during the 1994-95 school year when he was a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In the fall of 1994, Schwarz, a former award-winning journalist at The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, taught what’s now considered the first Citizen Schools apprenticeship in journalism to some fifth-graders at the Paul A. Dever School in Dorchester. So far, their hard work seems to be paying off, with accolades coming from far and wide. One Dorchester parent was so impressed with his daughter’s experience in Citizen Schools that he pulled the plug on a successful career in marketing with Bell Atlantic and took a drastic cut in pay to become a Citizen Schools staff member.

Mayor Menino’s office is happy, too. “We do, absolutely, consider Citizen Schools one of our strongest partners in our effort to expand quality after-school programs for youth across the city of Boston,” says Jennifer Davis. With a strong economy and the push of welfare reform, more and more parents are back in the workforce, she says, which means more latchkey kids without supervision. The mayor’s office estimates that 3,500 additional children will be in need of after-school care specifically because of welfare reform.

But can a planned expansion of Citizen Schools beyond Boston beginning in the 2002-03 school year duplicate this success?

“Nothing can be replicated lock, stock, and barrel,” says Michelle Seligson, the associate director of the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College and the former executive director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time there. “It depends on the leadership in the local communities,” she explains. “Eric and Ned…have a vision. The question is, can they help other people, who are not in Boston and not part of their particular group, achieve the same way of thinking?”

Meet the Author
Seligson says that Schwarz and Rimer have a lot to offer anyone who tries to imitate their success. “They do a very good job of managing [Citizen Schools] and raising money for it, and those are skills the field desperately needs across the country.”

Millicent Lawton, a former reporter for Education Week, is a free-lance writer in Newton.