Atlantic Cities

Putting Inner City Students on a Path to High-Paying Jobs, For Real

Putting Inner City Students on a Path to High-Paying Jobs, For Real
Sarah Goodyear

The regular school day may be over at the Global Technology Preparatory school in New York’s East Harlem, but the students are still hard at work.

In rooms all over the building, kids are learning how to make video games, create and market products, run for political office, and much more, all under the instruction of professionals who are volunteering their time to teach kids real-world skills.

It’s all part of a program called Citizen Schools, which aims to enrich the offerings of urban public schools by extending the school day and bringing in members of the private sector to share their knowledge and expertise.

Eighth-graders in the video-game workshop, taught by employees of Intent Media, are riveted to the lines of code on their screens, creating games incorporating images they find online, and in some cases their own original artwork. In an entrepreneurship workshop run by staff from the asset management firm AllianceBernstein, sixth-graders are coming up with hypothetical snack foods and marketing plans. One team has decided to go with individually packaged red velvet cake, calling them Dynamite Cakes. "The slogan is, ''Taste the blast!'" says a boy named Eric.

The Citizen Schools program, founded in 1995 in Boston, brings people from corporations such as Google, Raytheon, Microsoft, Amgen, and many more into 31 middle schools in low-income neighborhoods around the country. There, the professionals teach 10-week apprenticeships that lead up to a final presentation called WOW!, where the students show off the work they have accomplished. In the case of the entrepreneurship group, they’ll be pitching their ideas to a panel of AllianceBernstein staff who will react as potential investors. The kids watched clips from the reality TV show "Shark Tank" to prepare.

The central idea of Citizen Schools is to extend and complement the work that teachers are doing with the kids during the regular school day. Many of the apprenticeships focus on STEM skills – science, technology, engineering, and math. Volunteers from Google have helped kids build computers. Texas Instruments and Apache Corp. have mentored students in building electric cars.

East Harlem’s Global Tech Prep is typical of the schools served by the program. Eighty percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and it is what Citizen Schools defines as a school with high academic need: only 34 percent of its students meet proficiency standards in English, and 49 percent in math. The extended school day keeps middle-schoolers engaged in productive and positive activities during the tough after-school hours, when many kids find themselves at loose ends.

Citizen Schools apprenticeships weave academic principles into the curriculum and invest them with real-world relevance. Students learn, for instance, that graphing skills can come in quite handy when you’re trying to work out the logistics of a video game. Maybe the Pythagorean theorem isn’t completely pointless, after all.

Apprenticeships meet twice a week. On the other days, students get academic support and guidance from Citizen Schools staff. The program also helps them make decisions about what high schools to attend. As part of the Citizen Schools "8th Grade Academy" program, students visit college campuses and learn about their options for attending and paying for college.

Citizen Schools now serves about 5,000 middle school students each year across eight participating states, and the program documents lasting effects for its participants. Kids who have gone through Citizen Schools in middle school are less likely to be absent from high school, and graduate from high school at a rate 20 percent higher than their peers.

Michael Andrew says he knows participating in the program had a positive effect on him. When he was a fourth- and fifth-grader in Boston, he was one of the earliest enrollees. Now, he’s a 24-year-old graduate of Syracuse University who works at AllianceBernstein in information technology. And he’s back with Citizen Schools, this time as a volunteer.

"I was a popular kid, one of those kids who thought he was cool," says Andrew, who says he sometimes played the class clown. "In the program, I didn’t have to be that person. I met a whole new group of friends. Nobody was trying to show off." He admits that he did try to win over a girl he liked by demonstrating his ability to sew in a quilting class. "I made sure my skills were tight so that I could impress," says Andrew. "The pillows I made are still in my parents’ house today." He also built an engine in another apprenticeship that impressed in a different way -- when he fired it up at the WOW! demonstration, it was louder than anybody else's.

Andrew says his time as a Citizen Schools student gave him skills that he has used in all the years since, in school and at work. The program improved his once-shaky public speaking, says Andrew, and built up his leadership potential. "The teachers I worked with were awesome," he remembers.

Now he wants to be one of the teachers that the sixth-graders he’s working with today remember when they grow up. "I want to help inspire young black men and men in general," says Andrew, who is black. "It only takes one teacher to inspire you for life. I want to be able to do that. If I can only do that for one student each semester, it’s well worth it."

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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