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Solid Citizens

Afterschool’s no longer an afterthought thanks to alumni duo

One of those kids is Stacy Lewis, an energetic and gregarious sixth-grader at Wilson. Last semester, Lewis completed a law apprenticeship, which culminated in teams of students arguing their cases before a real judge in a downtown courthouse, and a dessert-making apprenticeship led by a confections expert from a Boston restaurant. This semester she’s remixing songs in the “Sound Design” apprenticeship and running her own business — buying Native American bracelets wholesale off the Internet and selling them to her friends and neighbors — in the “Be Your Own Boss” apprenticeship. She’s pleased to report that she’s netted $43 thus far selling the jewelry, but stresses that what really motivates her to participate in Citizen Schools is that “there’s so much important stuff to learn about.” Besides, she adds, “there’s nothing to do at my house after school.”

It’s that last observation that prompted Schwarz and Rimer to found Citizen Schools, just as it has led to the formation of similar programs around the country over the past decade. According to recent figures from the U.S. Bureau of the Census, nearly two-thirds of school-age children and youth live with a single employed parent or two parents who are both employed, which means that millions of kids arrive home from school each day with four hours or more of unsupervised time before them. Educators and behavior experts blame a host of problems on that lost time, from poor performance in school to substance abuse to criminal activity.

The success of some early afterschool programs prompted a national discussion of the issue as well as increased funding for additional programs. “Afterschool time was an afterthought for a long time, but that’s changed dramatically over the last five or six years,” says Schwarz. “Finding constructive ways to spend that time is now recognized as one of the most effective ways of changing outcomes for kids,” especially kids whose homes and neighborhoods may already be troubled by crime, violence, and drugs. As a result, Citizen Schools aims its programs at what is commonly described as an “at-risk” audience: mostly African-American youths from low-income families, many living in sections of the city where kids regularly fall prey to a host of social ills.

Schwarz and Rimer are accustomed to thinking big, and they say they won’t be content to see the mission of Citizen Schools directed solely on Boston. “We’re trying to build a national movement here,” Schwarz says.
“We’re looking at ways Citizen Schools can be a lab for the entire field and move it forward. Eventually I see an afterschool foundation, with maybe several billion dollars to work with, acting as a big launching pad for that national movement. For right now, though, we need to get people to refocus on this afterschool time and to take it more seriously.”

schwarz and rimer oversee the construction of their big launching pad from their recently expanded offices in Boston’s Children’s Museum building. New conference rooms and work spaces still retain a whiff of fresh paint as dozens of administrators and teaching fellows coordinate apprenticeships amid a clutter of computers, plants, and bookshelves.

In Rimer’s office, tucked behind a curving wall painted a warm orange, he and Schwarz retrace the path that has led them from their days as college friends to the front lines of the nation’s afterschool movement. The two share an easy camaraderie and seem to complement each other in the way that good friends often do. Rimer, 40, is tall, slender, and bookish-looking; he professes a bit of sleep-deprivation on this particular day thanks to his three-week old daughter, Madeleine. Schwarz, also 40, is similarly tall but heavy-jawed and more athletically built, like a hockey defenseman or a punishing enforcer in a rugby scrum.

At UVM, though, where each had his first taste of running non-profits, Rimer’s extracurricular activities ran to the physical while Schwarz’s leaned more toward the literary. Rimer, from Wilton, Conn., became involved in UVM Rescue squad as a first-year student and ended up running the organization his senior year. “I did everything you could do on the rescue squad, responded to hundreds of calls, and saw a lot of things most people thankfully don’t see in a lifetime,” he says of the experience. He tells of an emergency call that came in from the home of one of his professors, whose infant daughter was choking and unable to breathe. Rimer was part of the crew who responded and who were able to restore the child’s breathing. The next day, Rimer showed up for a final exam in the same professor’s class. “He handed me the exam and said, ‘Take all the time you need with this,’” Rimer says. Schwarz listens intently as Rimer tells the story, then asks, “You got an ‘A’ in that class, didn’t you?”

Rimer grins. “I think I did pretty well.”

Running the squad meant a lot more than emergency heroics, though. There were thirty-five student volunteers to manage, budgets to formulate, and a host of municipal offices to negotiate. “You’re twenty years old and you’re trying to figure all this stuff out,” Rimer says. “The only way you can learn it is by doing it.”

Schwarz, a native of New York City, encountered his first non-profit responsibility as editor of the Cynic. He began writing for the newspaper as a second-year student and became features editor, and then editor-in-chief in his junior year. Under Schwarz, the paper was serious-minded with a political bent, covering state and local stories like the rise of Bernie Sanders and the Progressives. “You could call then-governor Dick Snelling, or you could go down to City Hall and get time with Bernie,” he says. “I learned a lot about journalism and getting access to people. I was also managing a payroll with sixty people on it, and I learned a ton about management and leadership.”

He was also learning a lot about real-world politics, and he left the paper in the middle of his senior year to coordinate the national campus campaign for presidential candidate Gary Hart. Schwarz put in 30-40 hours per week on the campaign, logging a lot of phone time. “There was a month when we had a $1,700 phone bill,” Schwarz says, and laughs. “The phone was in Ned’s name.”

The two were roommates by then, living in an apartment on Adams Street. They were both political science majors and shared an admiration for Frank Bryan, among others. “ The best class I ever took was [Bryan’s] state government class, which he taught using a mock trial model,” Schwarz says. “You had to prepare a case on something like deer herd management or power company regulation, then argue whether the legislative or executive branch should have responsibility for overseeing it. That class led directly to the mock trial apprenticeships that we do at Citizen Schools.”

After UVM, Schwarz worked as a journalist covering politics in California and Massachusetts. The pull of the non-profit world prompted him to leave newspapers for City Year, a Boston-based urban community service program for young people that was begun by two of his friends. He eventually served as executive director of the program before going to work for AmeriCorps through a fellowship at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Rimer, meanwhile, worked in Washington, D.C. before spending four years in Central America, where he taught sustainable farming techniques to adults through the Pan-American Agricultural School in Honduras. He and Schwarz had kept in touch since UVM — Schwarz had visited him in Honduras — but when Rimer returned to New England for an MBA program at Boston University, their friendship was rekindled.

Schwarz began thinking “in general terms about kids and adults” during his Kennedy School fellowship, and gradually that thinking — along with what amounted to an ongoing “kids and adults” conversation with Rimer — led to the idea of forming a non-profit that would somehow benefit Boston’s at-risk children. By the fall of 1994 that vague notion had sharpened into Citizen Schools, and in January 1995, the day after Rimer completed his MBA, the pair co-founded the organization. The first two apprenticeships offered by Citizen Schools had direct ties to the founders’ experiences at UVM: Rimer led a course on first aid, and Schwarz led one on journalism.

From all appearances, Citizen Schools seems to be an idea that is catching on, as much for the attractiveness of its programs as for the vision and persuasiveness of its founders. In a little over five years, the Citizen Schools’ staff has grown from two to sixty full-timers, as well as thirty part-timers and legions of community volunteers. During that same period, its annual budget has grown from $100,000 to more than $5 million. Citizen Schools is in the midst of a $25 million investment campaign it hopes to complete by 2003, money it will use for, among other things, developing its training program and more than doubling the number of per-semester participants. “We’ve been on an aggressive growth program ever since we started,” Rimer says. “We’re really starting to see the effects of that. We’re growing in both scale and impact.” Afterschool programs are now offered at eleven schools across the city, and full-time summer sessions are offered at six locations.

That impact may be starting to spread beyond the Citizen Schools’ programs. “Ned and Eric have been extraordinary leaders when it comes to delivering services to middle school students, and they hold a leadership position among their peers locally and nationally due to the depth and quality of the experience Citizen Schools offers children,” says Marinell Yoders, senior program manager for the Boston 2:00-to-6:00 After-School Initiative. The program was created by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino in 1998 and was designed to offer support for afterschool efforts like Citizen Schools, which number about 250 in Boston alone. “Citizen Schools has been willing to sit down with us to help build a system that can help afterschool programs flourish. Getting that system in place is critical.”

The impact can also be seen at Woodrow Wilson Middle School. John Werner, who directs the Wilson program for Citizen Schools and was the first employee hired by Rimer and Schwarz, describes daily life at the school. “This is a school where the principal roams the halls with a bullhorn,” says Werner. A former Boston teacher, Werner presides with a loose-limbed vitality over the high-spirited Wilson apprentices, whom he seems to genuinely enjoy. “Test scores are a problem at middle schools all over the city, but Wilson is at the very bottom. You have a culture here is that is very negative and presents a real problem for a lot of kids. This isn’t exactly a happy place for them to be.”

One wall of the cafeteria, though, sports a vibrant new mural, the result of a Citizen Schools project. Behind the school are well-kept grounds, including a playground and an amphitheater, designed by Citizen Schools kids. The lower half of the brick building is painted an appealing yellow, an idea hatched by a Citizen Schools apprentice. “Schools can’t do it all,” Werner says. “There are so many barriers to excellence, but programs like this can at least help.”

Down the hall in the “Art Show” class, “citizen teacher” Paul Arsenault is doing his best to get his high-spirited charges to clean up. He’s just helped Wesley Jean-Baptiste, a bespectacled, articulate seventh grader, pick frames for his drawings, part of the class’s upcoming show at the Citizen’s Bank headquarters downtown. “I was hard on them, and I think it paid off,” says Arsenault, a recent graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art. “I’m a middle class white guy, my parents paid for my college, and I’ve had it relatively easy. It’s going to be harder for these kids to succeed, though, based on where they’re coming from. Will taking an art class with me make a difference? I hope so. I’d like to think they’re gaining some kind of confidence.”

Rimer and Schwarz contend that most kids can’t help but gain that confidence when they experience the process of learning, mastery, and presentation, especially when the learning has to do with fun stuff like art shows and solar cars and making sushi. Both are adherents of the ideas of the educator Erik Erikson, who championed the notion that developing competencies is key to the emotional and psychological development of children in early adolescence. “Getting to know a lot about one thing is very empowering for kids entering adulthood,” Rimer says. “It’s also a lot easier to have an effect on a kid who’s eleven than on one who’s eighteen.” Thus the dual nature of Citizen Schools — providing kids with not just something to do after school, but also with a glimpse, however fuzzy, of what they might become.

“Personality, too, is destiny,” Erik Erikson wrote. Rimer and Schwarz seem prepared to settle for nothing less. VQ

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