Citizen Schools: Helping Students Connect Talents to Professions

Photo courtesy of Citizen Schools North Carolina
The Citizen Schools North Carolina apprenticeship program works with middle school students to keep them engaged and on track for a career that interests them.

When Jeison was in sixth grade at Lowe’s Grove Middle School in Durham, he began attending the school’s Citizen Schools program. An average student, Jeison experienced frequent behavior problems. School had become frustrating for him.

Then he participated an engineering apprenticeship with Jerry Diehl, a volunteer Citizen Schools teacher from EMC Corporation. For three years, Jeison worked with Diehl, learning everything he could about schematics, breadboards, oscilloscopes — anything technological. Diehl noticed Jeison’s talent and brought in projects especially for him.

After middle school, Jeison was accepted into an engineering magnet high school. Diehl remains a resource for him as he seeks engineering internship opportunities.

Discovering Connections

Jeison’s work with Diehl is exactly the kind of connection Citizen Schools hopes to build. Founded in 1995, Citizen Schools offers free after-school programs to students in participating middle schools, and targets schools with a high percentage of low-income students.

Citizen Schools programs center on apprenticeships: 10-week programs in which students meet twice a week with trained, volunteer teachers from local businesses to participate in programs designed to connect their talents and academic work with professions that interest them. Participating students take four of these apprenticeships over the course of a school year. At some schools, Citizen Schools programs also offer academic support during the school day and after school.

The program is designed to show kids how the academic work they do in school connects to the world outside of school via professional activities, community problem solving and technology. Rachel Neill, principal at Quail Hollow Middle School in Charlotte, says she enjoys witnessing students make these connections.

“They love being able to take apart computers and put them back together again,” she says. “They say, ‘So this is why math and science are important!’”

The apprenticeships also offer kids at low-income schools exposure to professions about which they may know little – jobs in such diverse fields as law, computer coding and water treatment. Tonya Williams, principal of Sherwood Githens Middle School in Durham, says the Citizen Schools program empowers students to connect their strengths with unrealized career goals.

“One of the things that I’ve seen, particularly with average students who don’t know what careers are out there, is that they don’t really know their strengths,” she says. “They say, ‘Hey – that’s something I could possibly do that I didn’t even know was a career.’”

All in the Timing

Why offer this kind of professional opportunity to kids in sixth grade? Vanessa Benton, executive director of Citizen Schools North Carolina, says middle school is a critical time when students decide whether to fully commit to or disengage from school.

“These years are essential for them. They have to decide whether to stay engaged or not,” Benton says. “Some students just need a hook, or they don’t stay engaged.”

For students who disengaged during middle school, high school often becomes a game of catch-up – if the student re-engages at all.

Williams says because middle school represents such a crucial point for students who may be on the bubble of committing to or disengaging from school, Citizen Schools catches and hooks them at just the right time.

“I think that every students needs to feel connected in middle school to be successful,” she says. “And it might be different things that hook them.”

WOW-ing Friends and Family

Students gain confidence by participating in the Citizen Schools program, particularly through what is called WOW! presentations, which the students do at the end of each apprenticeship. Participating students are required to produce a product demonstrating what they have learned, which they then display and explain to their friends and family members.

The “product” can take many forms. For example, students who do the mock trial apprenticeship with Citizen Schools argue a case in a real courtroom before a sitting judge, while students in computer programming apprenticeships create computer games.

“Having to finish a course from beginning to end — come up with a product, and explain it to people multiple times — is excellent training,” Williams says. “They have to explain it to anyone who walks by. You should see how proud they are.”

Closing the Opportunity Gap

Citizen Schools is an example of an Expanded Learning Time program (ELT). Research conducted by the Citizen Schools program and other sources indicates that well-used ELT programs help close the opportunity gap between high-income students and their lower-income peers.

Funding ELT programs, however, is always difficult. Recently, the North Carolina legislature cut the After School Quality Improvement grant, which schools relied upon to help fund Citizen Schools and other after-school programs. As a result, schools have been struggling to maintain these programs.

Last December, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaces the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 in offering significant federal funding to state and local education programs. Each state chooses how it will allocate ESSA money; North Carolina is still working on its allocation plans.

Schools may allocate some ESSA resources to support ELT programs. Many educators hope increased funding from ESSA will make programs like Citizen Schools available to more middle-schoolers in North Carolina.

Learn more about the Citizen Schools program at


Elizabeth Brignac is a freelance writer and mother of two boys. She lives in Cary.


Categories: Education, Education Guide