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Now in NYC, Citizen Schools offers volunteers, offbeat instruction

A Boston-based program that pairs adult mentors with middle school students who want to learn how to design video games or launch a business is now bringing its brand of mentoring to New York City kids.

Citizen Schools, a decade-old organization that facilitates apprenticeships for students in almost 20 cities nationwide, set up shop at four middle schools this year, two each in Brooklyn and East Harlem. At each school, the organization is offering professional instruction, an after-school program, and classroom support, according to Nitzan Pelman, Citizen Schools’ New York City executive director.

The centerpiece of Citizen Schools’ programming is the apprenticeship, in which adult volunteers spend 12 weeks teaching students about a particular subject before the students present their work to a panel of experts on that subject. The presentations take place at an event called WOW!, named, Pelman told me, for the typical reaction of audience members.

In city schools this fall, apprenticeships offered instruction in dozens of subjects, including Celtic dancing, skateboarding, cooking, a documentary filmmaking. When I visited the Urban Assembly Academy for Arts and Letters in Brooklyn last month, I saw students rehearsing a group poem about expression and creativity, putting the finishing touches on memoirs they wrote with the help of journalists, and preparing to share what they had learned about the credit crisis.

At IS 45 in East Harlem, investment banker Gregory Mark Hill helped lead an apprenticeship titled “How to Make a Profit.” Hill said he started a foundation to support education, but because he views middle school as “an inflection point” in kids’ lives, he wanted to have a bigger impact.

“It’s one thing to write checks, attend black ties, and another thing to roll up your sleeves,” he told me.

Hill described working with students as a natural extension of his role teaching clients about investments.

But one of Citizen Schools’ major challenges is to prepare professionals, who often lack teaching experience, for the classroom. Pelman said all mentors participate in a 3-hour workshop where they set a goal for their students’ WOW! presentations and then work backwards to decide what they need to teach the students to prepare them.

Citizen Schools provides students more than just apprenticeships. The after-school program also includes help with homework, extra math and reading practice, field trips, and other activities such as sports. And volunteers and paid teaching fellows, usually freshly minted college graduates who want to explore a career in education, help out in classrooms throughout the day, ensuring continuity between academic instruction and Citizen Schools’ after-school program.

It’s one of Citizen Schools’ goals to encourage that kind of continuity, Pelman told me, adding that the four pilot schools in New York were chosen carefully from among dozens that applied in part because they were committed to integrating school-day and after-school programming.

The program charges $25,000 per school. Pelman said principals are usually able to use federal grant money for after-school programs to pay Citizen Schools, and she said the city Department of Education’s new middle school improvement grants could also enable needy schools to purchase the program. Citizen Schools plans to expand to one additional city school in the fall.

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