Grantee Spotlight:

Citizen Schools - school reform through research-based strategies

Achievement gaps in the United States are persistent and difficult to disrupt. In fact, researchers Anne Fernald and Adriana Weisleder demonstrated that by age two vocabulary disparities between rich and poor children are equivalent to a six-month developmental gap. Achievement gaps start early in life, and deficits in developmental skill acquisition accumulate over time Thus, by the time children enter middle school, achievement gaps become rigid and require significant time and effort to close.

While research has documented the critical importance of the early years in building a strong foundation, middle school ages are also gaining attention as the make or break years in a child's life. Children arriving at middle school with developmental deficits must get on track by the end of 6th grade or they face very slim odds of graduating high school.
Based on this compelling reality, Dr. Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University wrote an opinion editorial published in the New York Times recommending three key middle school strategies related to his groundbreaking research. First, redesign secondary schools serving high-poverty areas with a focus on their students' needs in the 6th grade, or transition year. Second, implement early warning systems to identify children at risk of disengaging. Third, employ additional adults to support students who need daily support and nurturing.

With precisely these recommendations in mind, Citizen Schools has implemented its expanded learning time (ELT) model at Patrick Henry Middle School in North Houston. The model adds more than 400 hours of learning time to the school year, providing students with critical opportunities to close skill gaps and knowledge deficits. So how does it work?

Expanded Learning Time
A key plank of Citizen Schools' ELT model is to extend the school day to 6:00 PM. To make use of the extra time, Citizen Schools recruits, trains, and embeds a cohort of AmeriCorps Teaching Fellows into the school for the full school day for the entire school year. These AmeriCorps Teaching Fellows participate in school staff activities like planning meetings, curriculum design workshops, and Individualized Education Plan meetings. This acculturation to the school process and methods enables the AmeriCorps members to provide students with additional support and expanded learning opportunities that are aligned with what they are taught during the regular school day.

Alignment matters because tutoring and additional academic support that reinforces learning anchored in the school day helps students to close knowledge gaps. When academic support is out of alignment with the school day, it can often add to confusion, actually impeding success.

Identify Children at Risk
As the research cited earlier suggests, it is not enough to simply transform the way schools operate. To be effective, early warning systems must also be implemented to identify students in need of support. Citizen Schools' staff hosts Grades and Goals Conferences with individual students, in which students make and evaluate personal academic growth goals for each marking period. These conferences offer opportunities for the staff to key in and build goals around any potential deficits a student is facing. Grades and Goals Conferences also offer opportunities for staff to consider each student's progress from one marking period to the next, in which red flags and new challenges can be identified and strategized around.

Provide Caring Adults
With respect to the recommendation to employ additional adults to support students, Citizen Schools brings incredible energy and support into the schools through their embedded staff and their volunteer apprenticeship leaders. In addition to benefiting from AmeriCorps members described above, the students are also enrolled in various apprenticeships. Meeting once a week for 90 minutes over an 11-week season, students complete hands-on projects that reinforce core skills and introduce them to professional fields such as architecture, computer programming, law, or project management. Apprenticeships are facilitated by community volunteers who want to share their profession or passion with students. Apprenticeships culminate in a public celebration that gives the students opportunities to teach back to the community the rich knowledge each has gained.

Promising Early Results
Preliminary findings from a two-year evaluation of Citizen Schools ELT demonstrate a statistically significant positive effect on state assessment scores in English Language Arts, equivalent to approximately five additional months of learning per year for each student relative to the norm. It has also found that a significantly higher proportion of teachers in Citizen Schools ELT schools reported that they were satisfied with the time available for students to pursue topics of interest to them (72% of teachers), which is more than three times higher than the rate for teachers at the similar, comparison schools without Citizen Schools ELT. Similarly, students in Citizen Schools ELT schools reported significantly higher levels of participation in several future-oriented activities, including those to learn about college and careers.

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