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A Discussion With Eric Schwarz, CEO and Co-Founder of Citizen Schools

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Recently, I interviewed Eric Schwarz, CEO and co-founder of Citizen Schools, a Boston-based, national nonprofit organization that offers after-school workshops for low-income students led by volunteer teachers from professions including urban planning, law, engineering, ecology, and financial planning. As an organization at the forefront of a movement to educate children, strengthen communities, and increase access to the American Dream, we discussed the founding, evolution, challenges, and opportunities since Citizen School's inception in 1995.

The full transcript is published below.

Rahim Kanani: Describe a little bit about the inspiration and motivation behind the founding of Citizen Schools.

Eric Schwarz: I was inspired by the combination of my mother's example along with a sense of frustration at the slow pace of education reform. My mother was a teacher and I always respected her dedication to education. I wasn't interested in becoming a fulltime teacher myself, but was looking for a way to personally contribute and teach in a different way. In 1995, I volunteered, along with my colleague Ned Rimer, to teach twenty fifth graders at the Dever School in Dorchester, MA. I taught a journalism apprenticeship where the students had the chance to write essays, sell advertisements, and even print their own papers to distribute to their schoolmates. The sense of pride and accomplishment that I saw in the kids was a real turning point. That experience strengthened my belief that schools and school systems were stuck in a 19th century paradigm where school schedules, instruction and format were fixed for no good reason. Citizen Schools was founded as an organization that helps schools break out of that box and deliver results.

Rahim Kanani: Fast-forwarding to the present day, how has Citizen Schools evolved since its founding in terms of resources, reach, and results?

Eric Schwarz: Citizen Schools started with an idea and two volunteers in one Boston school. We are currently partnering with nearly forty schools in eighteen cities and seven states, and engage thousands of volunteers every year. We launched with a $120K budget and we are now a $25M organization. Our plans are to continue to grow with more, deeper partnerships in the cities and states that we currently serve and, ultimately, expand to new cities across the country.

When Ned and I wrote the concept paper that helped launch Citizen Schools, we had a belief that more time, more relevant learning experiences, and more caring adults would make a difference for students. Now, we have the results to back up that belief. From the beginning, Citizen Schools has been deeply committed to evaluation and over the years we've compiled excellent data on our impact. It is clear that our work is moving the needle not only on standardized test proficiency, but also on overall student achievement, school performance, graduation rates and college access.

We've come a long way in the last 16 years, but we are a learning organization and we know that there is always room to grow and stretch. I'm excited about my role helping to lead the continued evolution of Citizen Schools.

Rahim Kanani: In terms of non-profit leadership and management, what have been some of the major milestones since the organization's inception in terms of challenges you've overcame or opportunities you've seized?

Eric Schwarz: I think the biggest challenge has been butting up against people's belief in what is possible. Too often people are stuck in the current paradigm of what is that they have a difficult time seeing what could be. The very idea that an organization like Citizen Schools -- an organization that looks differently at when a child learns, how they learn and who can teach -- can have direct results and shared responsibility for education outcomes, can run up against skepticism. People are so used to the idea that schools and traditional instruction are the only way for students to learn. In fact, much of a child's education is driven from outside of traditional schools. Citizen Schools is proving this at the same time that we are helping schools rethink the school day and open their doors to the surrounding community.

In terms of opportunities, Citizen Schools has played more of a role in the public policy arena in the past few years. Because of our results on the ground, we have a powerful story to share. We are looking to help inform policymakers and leverage our work and examples in the broadest way possible. We've also had the opportunity to deepen our relationships with more and more schools through expanded learning time programs. Our first opportunity came through the Massachusetts Expanded Learning Time Initiative. In 2006, we were chosen to partner with three schools to lengthen the school day for all students through the state-funded initiative. Our success with those schools has helped drive new expanded learning time partnerships across the country. Through those partnerships, we have evolved from an after-school program that works with a portion of students to a true school partner that helps drive whole school turnaround and deliver results.

Rahim Kanani: What is the hardest part about leading a non-profit organization like Citizen Schools? And where have you encountered the most unexpected resistance?

Eric Schwarz: The most difficult aspect to navigate is that funding mechanisms in the nonprofit world tend towards supporting upstarts and new ideas. In the business world, you gain momentum and bring in more funds if you build a better mousetrap. That isn't necessarily the case in the nonprofit world. By contrast, even organizations that are delivering strong results can have difficulty securing the funds to grow and deliver effective services to more "customers." The system is not designed to support organizations in that way and the dysfunction comes from both public and private funding sources.

Rahim Kanani: On the other hand, where have you prepared for resistance throughout the evolution of the organization and found an unexpectedly smooth engagement?

Eric Schwarz: We've all heard stories about organizations and companies where growth leads to a reduction in quality. In our experience, we were actually able to improve program quality and deliver even better results during a dramatic period of growth.

Rahim Kanani: As Citizen Schools continues to expand, paint for a moment a portrait of the organization's position -- as you wish it would be -- five years down the road.

Eric Schwarz: In the next five years, I'd like to see Citizen Schools establish 25 or more highly effective expanded learning time schools where kids learn for 9 to 10 hours through a vibrant partnership with traditional public schools serving very low-income children. Our commissioned long-term external evaluation will be wrapping up and we are hoping that the Citizen Schools' expanded learning time sites will close 75 percent to 100 percent of the achievement gap (with suburban schools).

Major American companies like Google, Fidelity, Bank of America, and Cisco are increasingly supporting our work financially but also through volunteers. I'd like to see those companies continue to grow the already impressive numbers of employees volunteering in classrooms. What if 10 percent of all their employees were volunteering as Citizen Teachers (that's what we call our volunteers) through Citizen Schools or similar organizations? We'd also like to see local and national policy makers continue their support of more learning time. In an ideal world, we'd see a White House-convened symposium to discuss how to lengthen and restructure the learning day, and how to engage millions of volunteer Citizen Teachers in bringing learning to life for children across the country. Finally, we'll work towards rallying our supporters, corporate volunteers, parents and others, to call for a national scale-up of the Citizen Schools idea.

Longer term, I'd like to see most U.S. schools serving low-income children re-imagine the length and structure and offerings of the school day, thereby closing the opportunity and the achievement gaps with wealthier students. Thousands of schools could move from the six hour day led by a teacher talking to kids -- which had prevailed in the 19th, 20th, and early 21st century -- to a nine or ten hour day that incorporates master teachers leading core instruction and a second shift of skilled educators who bring learning to life through hands-on, real world projects and academic practice. Done right, this could lead to dramatic results in terms of raising high school and college graduation rates.

Rahim Kanani: And lastly, how has your own inspiration and motivation evolved since the founding of Citizen Schools?

Eric Schwarz: I continue to get inspiration from my colleagues, both here at Citizen Schools and beyond. It's important to surround yourself with people who help build energy and I've found great motivation in the energy and determination of my team. More and more, I am inspired by the growth and successes of my staff. I've also found encouragement in collaborating and sharing struggles with colleagues from across the field.

In addition, I'm inspired by the movement we've seen in policy and the potential to use our success as a model that helps inform policy decisions with the potential to impact large numbers of students and families.

But probably the most inspirational and motivational interactions are with students and their parents. Those conversations with kids and families, where I hear from them directly about what they think of the program, further my resolve to do more for more kids. Over time, my position has evolved so that I don't get as much direct access with students and families, but I make an effort to make that time a priority as much as possible.

Cross-posted with RahimKanani.com