Volunteering with Citizen Schools

Vol. 29 No. 1

By

Cynthia M. Gilbert is the founder of Hyperion Law, a Boston-based law firm specializing in high-technology patents.

 

“If I could go anywhere in the world, I would go to Switzerland. They have free public health care there, and I’m curious about what other differences I might discover if I could visit them.” I’ll never forget sitting in a law firm cafeteria overrun by 13- to 15-year-olds one September afternoon and how astounded I was to hear this comment from an eighth-grader.

Every September, I begin a yearlong process of getting to know an inner-city eighth-grader, helping him or her develop critical thinking and persuasive writing skills, and establishing a mentoring relationship that can last for years. I’m in my fifth year of volunteering with the Citizen Schools Eighth Grade Academy (8GA), a nationwide network of after-school education programs in which volunteers, supported by professional educators, mentor inner-city eighth-graders and help them attain the skills they need to enter high school, graduate, and succeed in college.

The four-year high school graduation rate for low-income students in the United States is only 61 percent, while the rate for U.S. students in general is 71 percent. As a child growing up in a lower-middle-class family in tough neighborhoods, I could have easily been a statistic myself. I know from experience that for young people growing up in disadvantaged situations, success in our educational system requires more than good grades and passing state exams. It requires the ability to aspire to a job or professional context foreign to their environments and a supportive network that affirms the value of education.

The Citizen Schools program pairs at least one lawyer with each participating student, and we meet every other week at law firms around the city to complete various writing exercises. Over the course of the year, the students complete biographies, editorials, and high school application essays, all with the goal of getting them into better high schools than they might otherwise attend. They spend an extra three hours every weekday after school and dedicate one Saturday a month to practicing their writing skills, researching colleges, and planning a better future for themselves. The environment in which we work with the students is just as important as the curriculum. Students spend an afternoon every other week in professionals’ offices, experiencing the commute to a downtown office building, observing how professionals speak, act, dress, and interact with each other, and noting firsthand the visible benefits of pursuing a higher education.

The program is a success because of the time and energy of the professional educators, the generosity of the schools and professional services firms that partner with the program, and the dedication of hundreds of volunteers throughout the country. The four-year high school graduation rates for students who complete 8GA is 87 percent—and nearly all of those students go on to college.

As a solo attorney, I spend my days running a company, solving client problems, juggling deadlines, keeping up with case law, and focusing on the practice of law in the niche area of computer technology patents for growing companies. When the alarm goes off and it’s time to head out to Citizen Schools, I’m wrapping up client calls, finishing up a document, or focusing on some legal issue and rarely ready to break for three hours of grammar lessons and high school application essays! But the time spent surrounded by young, smart, creative students never fails to infuse me with optimism and hope, to inspire me to see the world from a different perspective. To help a young person brainstorm on the plans for achieving her hopes and dreams, to see his face light up when he grasps a new concept or finds exactly the right words to express himself, to witness the power and intelligence of the next generation in action—this is more refreshing and invigorating than any coffee break.

Citizen Schools provides me with a unique opportunity to partner with educators and support students in my community who need all the help they can get to overcome the obstacles they face. But my 8GA kids do just as much coaching, inspiring, and enlightening as I do, and for that I’ll always be grateful to each and every one of them.

 

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