A presentation on DNA is not out of place at Boston’s Museum of Science. “We extracted DNA from peas,” said Max, a young man in a white lab coat. “And learned about DNA models, including the helix.” What is unusual is Max’s age. He’s a sixth grader at Boston’s Washington Irving Middle School, and his presentation is part of Citizen Schools’ annual WOW! Event. At this showcase of student work, Max and other students presented their projects on DNA, robotic cars, app development, and other subjects to hundreds of adults, offering a window into Citizens Schools’ dynamic initiatives with middle school students across the country.

Watch this video to experience a WOW! presentation:

Extended Learning Time

Since 1995, Citizen Schools has been making major results-driven changes to the school day. Most schools operate on the conventional 8:00 a.m.–2:30 p.m. schedule, but Citizen Schools has encouraged an “extended learning time” (ELT) model, where the school day begins earlier and ends later. The Walmart Foundation recognized the value of this approach, and has helped support Citizen Schools to expand its reach. From Brooklyn to San Jose, Citizen Schools and its corps of 4,280 national volunteers run programs in 29 schools across seven states, serving 5,100 students in grades 6 through 8.


From the beginning, Citizen Schools recognized that after-school enrichment opportunities are driven by economics. For families able to afford them, academic tutoring, music lessons, sports, arts, and technology programs are all readily available. But the price of extracurriculars is steep, running thousands of dollars per child—prohibitively expensive for many low- and moderate-income families. The result is a gap in access to adult mentors, with students who participate in extracurricular lessons and courses receiving an average of 300 more hours of mentor contact annually than their less-privileged peers.

Citizen Schools’ drive and purpose is to bridge the opportunity—and achievement—gap between low- and higher-income students. The ELT model of three added hours per day, four days per week, has shown tremendous results in academics, developmental growth, parent and community engagement, and improved school culture. Not surprisingly, student outcomes have improved significantly in schools that have partnered with Citizen Schools.

This 2010 report from NBC Nightly News provides a good overview of Citizen Schools’ approach.

Apprenticeships and Citizen Teachers

The founders of Citizen Schools recognized that there was a deep, rich, untapped resource surrounding every city school: professional adults. At the center of Citizen Schools’ programming are in-school apprenticeships run by such “Citizen Teachers.”

Citizen Teachers are volunteers who bring their professional skills, enthusiasm, and career knowledge to students. Many work for America’s leading institutions like Google, Cisco, Bank of America, WGBH, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), National Society of Black Engineers, UNICEF, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and American Express. Neighborhood residents (unaffiliated with a business or university) also sign on as Citizen Teachers. Even if they’ve never taught in a classroom before, Citizen Teachers are experts in their field and naturally become mentors for middle schoolers.

Apprenticeship curricula include “Building Big,” where students learn the basics of architecture; “Lemonade Day,” an introduction to entrepreneurship; and “Ambition Musician,” a songwriting course. Kids might learn how to build an alternative energy vehicle, design a public service announcement, or conserve wetlands. Every apprenticeship drives students to explore cutting-edge ideas, learn about new professional fields, and improve a variety of skills—from academic content to collaboration, global awareness, effective reasoning, problem solving, and innovation. Each 10-week cycle culminates in lively WOW! student presentations using video, audio, posters, and talks.

By interacting regularly with Citizen Teachers, middle schoolers are introduced to a wide range of professions—and future professional choices—outside of their usual experience.

While apprenticeships are the core of Citizen Schools’ activities, the program also provides wraparound services in literacy and math, as well as personal development and college-to-career connections.

Citizen Schools in Action

The experience of Boston’s Orchard Gardens school exemplifies Citizen Schools’ impact. In 2009, Orchard Gardens was a Level 4 “turnaround” school, placing it among Boston’s lowest-performing 127 schools. Test scores hovered in the bottom 5%. The school focused as much on security as curriculum. In 2010, fewer than 20% of the students were reading at grade level. However, after four years of Citizen Schools’ involvement, that number is now above 50%. Equally impressive were the math gains: the 2013 eighth graders reversed the achievement gap, with 63% math proficiency compared to the statewide rate of 55%. In a broader view, results indicate that after two years of piloting ELT national, students average three to five months of academic gains.

Watch this video for more about Citizen Schools at Orchard Gardens.

A huge outcome of the apprenticeship program that isn’t easily quantified is the relationships created between Citizen Teachers and students, and the larger worldview that results. “Citizen Schools has made us think about how we see ourselves in 10 to 15 years,” said Katiushca, an eighth-grader. Through Citizen Schools, Katiushca has studied engineering, architecture, and solar power and works on her writing with a mentor at Northeastern University. “I want to be a research scientist and find cures for diseases like cancer and insomnia,” she said, while taking a break from writing a high school application essay. Katiushca looked around the late afternoon classroom, where other students were working in pairs on their application essays, and added, “I feel like now that the school got better, I have great opportunities.”