Mayor Toni Harp and New Haven Public Schools Superintendent Garth Harries ’95 took a step Tuesday morning toward closing Connecticut’s education achievement gap, which is one of the widest in the country.
Harp and Harries signed a letter of intent to bring Citizen Schools — a program that works with public middle schools to give all students additional hours of schooling — to three NHPS schools in the next academic year. Between now and April, the city and Citizen Schools must seek NHPS, community and financial support in order to make the program a reality. The organization will a sign an official contract with the city if they achieve these goals. Citizen Schools, which has reached 5,300 students across seven states, has seen a good deal of success in underprivileged schools since its 1995 launch, Citizen Schools President Emily McCann said. Students who participated in Citizen Schools graduate at a 20 percent higher rate than students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds who did not participate, she said.
“Middle school is one of the very best times to influence a child’s life because the brain is really growing,” Harp said. “Citizen Schools has it right. What happens oftentimes in normal education is that middle school is not addressed in a way that takes advantage of children’s time to grow.”
The letter of intent is a public commitment to exploring an official partnership between the city and Citizens Schools, said Special Advisor to Citizen Schools Nell Kisiel.
The program’s flagship concept — extended learning time — aims to close the wide gap between upper- and middle-class children’s access to non-classroom educational enrichment such as music school, language lessons and tutoring.
Children from middle- and upper-income backgrounds already benefit from 6,000 additional hours of learning time, compared to peers from lower-income families, by the time they enter middle school.
Students at schools enrolled in Citizen School gain 300 to 400 additional hours of academic support and enrichment programs each year, McCann said. Mentors in the program — community volunteers or recent college graduates in AmeriCorps — lead students in various educational enrichment activities including mock trial, robotics and journalism. The program also helps reinforce the curricula students learn during formal school time.
Boston native Vidya Ganga participated in Citizen Schools’ mock trial program during her three years in middle school. Now enrolled in a crime and justice program at Suffolk University, Ganga said Citizen School helped her set the educational goals that enabled her to pursue a legal career.
“I worked with lawyers for six weeks and then presented in front of a judge,” Ganga said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I learned that I wanted to be in a courtroom, speak and be a lawyer in the future.”
NHPS has extended school days with mixed success over the past few years, Harries said, citing student and teacher burnout as obstacles to the initiatives’ success. Citizen Schools is unlikely to face these problems, Harries added.
New Haven professionals will also have the opportunity to share their skills with Citizen Schools students. Laura Pappano — a journalist who founded an after-school journalism club at East Rock Community Magnet School — said Citizen Schools offers a structure that allows local professionals to share their skills, whether they be public speaking, solar-car engineering or computer-program design.
Employees at John Hancock Financial in Boston have supported Citizen Schools in their city by teaching a class about the college application process, Hancock Program and Events Coordinator Rita German said.
Alexander Donovan SOM ’16, who has taught in public schools with former Citizen Schools teachers, said the program gives young graduates interested in education a valuable opportunity to get a taste of teaching before committing to the profession.
The first Citizen Schools programs were in Boston, Massachusetts.