One of the best-kept secrets in Durham Public Schools

Apr. 19, 2014 @ 11:02 AM

More than 180 people -- parents, teachers, principals, students and corporate volunteers and community leaders -- recently filled Bay 7 of the American Tobacco Campus to hear about a project that surely ranks as one of the best-kept secrets in Durham Public Schools.

The project is Citizen Schools, a national nonprofit that partners with middle schools in low-income communities to extend the learning day and to help kids stay on track academically. It also broadens their horizons by enlisting community volunteers to teach workshops in which they share their interests and professional knowledge and serve as role models.  

Citizen Schools works in North Carolina and six other states. Here in Durham, Citizen Schools serves students at Lowe’s Grove and Neal middle schools.

We hear a lot these days about the achievement gap between lower-income and upper-income students.

We know, for example, that students in upper-income families spend 300 more hours each year with adults than do the 3 million students in lower-income families. Upper-income students also benefit from thousands of dollars of enrichment activities yearly, such as computer camps, piano lessons, academic tutoring and more.

Citizen Schools partners with middle schools in low-income communities to address these disparities by supporting a “second shift” of educators, providing a longer learning day rich with opportunities. It also helps these kids by connecting them with the resources of companies, governments and philanthropies in their communities.

In Durham, citizen volunteers -- engineers and computer scientists, lawyers and business people -- from companies like EMC, Fidelity, SAS and Cisco as well as organizations like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Duke University, go into schools two afternoons a week. They share their knowledge and passions in areas ranging from robotics and urban gardening to networking and financial management.

The results are all positive -- better grades and attendance as well as more success in high school and college for the kids; happy, engaged parents; supported teachers and committed volunteers.

These results were all on display at the American Tobacco Campus. The audience heard from parents whose kids have been turned on to school and learning and careers they never dreamed they might have as adults.

They heard volunteers describe the experience of teaching children about careers in computer science and law and other professions -- and watching with amazement as the kids soaked in everything the adult volunteers could teach them.

And they heard from the students themselves, as they described the apprenticeships they completed with their adult volunteers and what they had learned -- and what they wanted for their futures as a result: good grades, a high school diploma, college, a professional career.

There’s just one problem with Citizen Schools. It’s not reaching enough kids. We need to expand it and make it available to more students.

That’s no one’s fault. Our school board and administration are working hard in tough times to help keep their partnerships with Citizen Schools going. And the program’s corporate partners are more committed than ever to helping Citizen Schools help kids reach the highest goals.

But there’s more to do. Our kids need more corporate sponsors and individuals to invest in Citizen Schools and their kids’ success. We need more professionals to teach apprenticeships and share their professional knowledge -- whatever it may be -- with kids whose horizons may otherwise be tragically limited.

And we need community leaders to build on Citizen Schools' success by making expanded learning time a cornerstone of our strategy for bridging the opportunity gap.

Sound far-fetched? It’s not. In fact it’s happening now, in our community. 

Edward B. (Ted) Fiske is lives in Durham and is a member of the Citizen Schools NC advisory board. A former Education Editor of the New York Times, he is the author of the Fiske Guide to Colleges. For more information about Citizen Schools, visit www.citizenschools.org/northcarolina or contact Jin Ellington at jinellington@citizenschools.org