Amplify Blog

Insights and ideas directly from New Profit

May 18, 2016

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Thanks to the persistence of social innovators across the country, every day we see strategies that are working and delivering results in a rapidly changing world. This ongoing blog series will highlight the voices of our Coalition of 70+ social innovators and their innovative solutions to our country’s most pressing social problems, as well as examples of how this powerful work can be transformed into national change. Today we will hear from Emily McCann, CEO of Citizen Schools, about the importance of expanded learning time and how access to real-world learning experiences increases student success well beyond middle school.

This blog post was authored by Emily McCann, CEO of Citizen Schools.

Carol Dweck taught us that mastery requires both confidence and first-hand experience with an idea or a process. At Citizen Schools, we recognize that all students—regardless of income or background—need access to high-quality, real-world learning experiences and mentorship that will build their confidence and put them on a path to post-secondary and career success. Citizen Schools 2

Children from low income communities often, by virtue of discrepancies in their parents’ income, do not have access to these learning opportunities, which primarily take place outside of the traditional school day, in after school programs, on weekends, and during the summer. This gap in opportunity is creating a growing achievement gap—which starts in elementary school and persists through college. In fact, students from the lowest socio-economic quartile are completing college at rates 6 times lower than their more affluent peers. Lower income children come up short, counting on public schools to give them everything they need, even though most students only spend 20% of their waking hours in the classroom.

Harvard economist Roland Fryer’s research finds that among features that predict student success, expanded learning time is high on the list. Closing the achievement gap and leveling the playing field will require offering students, particularly disadvantaged students, more meaningful learning time.

To that end, Citizen Schools partners with middle schools in low income communities across the country to expand learning opportunities for low income students, with a special focus on the critical, but often neglected, middle school years. We capitalize on this critical developmental period and inflection point, effectively setting students’ sights on high school graduation and college matriculation, while building the 21st century skills, beliefs, and networks they will need to reach those goals.

In order to effectively connect with students, we mobilize a team of AmeriCorps Teaching Fellows and roughly 4,000 volunteer professionals each year from businesses, universities, and nonprofits to teach apprenticeships—real-world learning projects that connect middle school to college and careers—as well provide academic support in order to help all students discover and achieve their dreams. In these apprenticeships, students explore new fields and career opportunities alongside volunteer professionals. For ten weeks, classrooms are transformed into technology labs, startups, boardrooms, and tournament stages to engage over 5,000 students in hands-on learning opportunities. The students work with these volunteers to program smartphone applications, film and edit documentary films, engineer solar cars, design marketing campaigns or other products. Each apprenticeship culminates in a public celebration of learning and civic engagement known as a “WOW!”

In our twenty years of service, have developed a strong track record of results through a series of rigorous independent evaluations that have reported that Citizen Schools’ students significantly outperform their peers on leading indicators of educational success and advancement, including attendance, grades, and on-time graduation from high school. Interim findings from an Abt Associates study of Citizen Schools’ ELT initiative reveal unique, consistently positive, and promising student learning gains equal to approximately two additional months of learning in English Language Arts (ELA) and approximately three additional months of learning in Math on state assessments. Internal evaluations have also shown that Citizen Schools’ students are 48% more likely to enroll in college compared to matched peers from low income communities.

Understanding that we can’t reach all the students who would benefit from these types of expanded learning opportunities, we are striving to prove what works and disseminate those findings to reimagine the middle school experience and make expanded learning the new normal for American adolescents. To that end, we are calling on all presidential candidates to magnify their support for education by adopting an education platform that:

  • Encourages schools to leverage human capital to expand learning opportunities;
  • Raises awareness of the middle school years;
  • Encourages public-private partnerships; and
  • Supports investing in what works

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Through our partnership with America Forward, we will continue to share this set of recommendations and raise the profile of expanded day with the presidential candidates. America Forward’s Coalition of 70+ innovative, impact-driven organizations, all of which are working hard to deliver positive outcomes for communities across the country, help to further amplify and advance this message with the Presidential candidates and their advisors.

Only by critically re-thinking and boldly re-imagining the basic structures of education, can we advance our educational system and develop a workforce that is prepared to meet the challenges of the global age—a goal we hope the next president of the United States will support.  

Read more about how social innovators in the America Forward Coalition, like Citizen Schools, are solving America’s biggest problems in communities across the country every day in our briefing book, Moving America Forward: Innovators Lead the Way to Unlocking America’s Potential, and join the conversation. Follow @CSchools and @America_Forward, and tell us how real-world learning experiences impacted your life using #AFPresidential16.

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