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Bringing the Fundamentals of Civics to Life at City on a Hill

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Third in an occasional series.

The usual hustle and bustle of Boston's City on a Hill school gave way to an eerie calm for two weeks last month. But the school's director of programs, Cindy Cheney, found her voice mail abuzz with messages.

Beep. "Hi, this is Monique. I just wanted to say I love my internship! Bye!" Beep. A representative of a youth-advocacy project at the Roxbury, Mass., public defender's office called to praise her intern: "Brazil is wonderful!"

For the two weeks between the fall and spring semesters, 65 students journeyed into the community, holding internships in, among other places, museums, hospitals, and government agencies. They answered phones, attended meetings, conducted surveys.

Intersession is an integral part of the academic year at City on a Hill, a charter school that seeks to cultivate an understanding of citizenship and the democratic process through a rigorous liberal-arts curriculum.

Here, public-service projects and weekly New England-style "town meetings" bring the fundamentals of civics to life. For its part, intersession is designed to give students a chance to take what they have learned in the classroom and apply it to real-world settings.

Housed in a YMCA, City on a Hill opened its doors last September to 65 freshmen and sophomores. Education Week is visiting City on a Hill periodically to chronicle the first year in the life of a school. (See Education Week, Sept. 20, 1995, and Jan. 10, 1996.) 10, 1996.)

It is a school that considers itself vitally linked to the community. That community includes many constituents: from the students and their families, who hail from across the city, to the dozens of Boston businesses and community groups with which it has forged partnerships.

Even the school's home at the Y brings City on a Hill's connections to the community to life. (See story, page 9.)

In its back yard, the school's community counts neighboring Northeastern University and an array of arts organizations, including the Huntington Theatre and the Museum of Fine Arts--places City on a Hill hopes students will come to embrace as "their theater" and "their museum."

And, in co-founder Ann Connolly Tolkoff's eyes, City on a Hill's community also includes the broader citizenry of Boston, the taxpayers who are footing the bill for this experimental school.

"I feel very accountable," she said. "The taxpayers are extraordinarily willing to pay for this, and I think it's important we strive to teach excellence."

No Small Task

In the months before intersession, the school's small faculty debated how best to balance the opportunity for students to have internships with the need to provide remedial help to those students who had fallen behind.

Eventually, they reached a compromise, articulated in a plan developed by Ms. Tolkoff and math teacher Jesse Solomon: Students in good academic standing could pursue full-time internships. Those who were failing--or on the brink--in more than one class would attend extra-help sessions at school in the mornings and spend their afternoons at part-time internships.

From Mr. Solomon's vantage point, it was important for every student to complete an internship.

"We are trying to model for them what it's like to be an adult in school, but it's never 100 percent real," he observed. "We put kids in very few situations where we treat them like adults, and they are always wondering what it is really like."

Arranging internships for 65 inquisitive, high-energy students was no small task. Ms. Cheney, who coordinated the program, got in touch with nearly 200 organizations to find out if they were interested and to invite them to an open house.

From there, she nailed down 43 placements, a diverse lot that included a child-care center, the community service corps City Year, and the office of U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

Then, Ms. Cheney surveyed students about their interests, encouraging them to drop her a note if they were interested in a particular placement. A few took the suggestion to heart. Two boys deluged her desk and mailbox with nearly 50 pleas for jobs at the Sports Museum of New England.

For many students, their internships would amount to their first real jobs. To get ready, their teachers helped them prepare resumes and write letters of introduction.

While most sites took one intern, some, like the Museum of Science, found work for as many as three.

At the main entrance to the popular tourist destination, student Sean Donovan checked visitors' tickets. He requested the placement because of his interest in science--he already had a part-time job helping the school's science teacher, Paul S. Hays. In addition to his ticket-checking duties, Mr. Donovan conducted a phone survey of the museum's corporate members. He also staffed the information desk, where he learned the No. 1 question is, "Where's the bathroom?"

Mr. Donovan's classmates Scott Ong and Tien Huynh lent a hand at the Discovery Center, an activity room for preschoolers and elementary-aged children.

Wearing aqua museum aprons, Mr. Ong and Mr. Huynh proudly showed 7-year-old Morgan Hamill of Watertown, Conn., the center's collection of bones and fossils. Mr. Huynh pointed out a pig skull. "Can you find other skulls in the room?" he asked Morgan. "How are they different?"

Among the interns' perks was attending a rich array of special programs at the museum, from live animal demonstrations to laser shows. The young men also learned some of its secrets--that the baby chicks eventually become chow for the owls and snakes.

Closer to Home

Other students had internships closer to school--as close as down the hall.

Several small community organizations share the same floor as the school at the YMCA, including a local chapter of Do Something, the national nonprofit group founded by actor Andrew Shue of "Melrose Place" fame.

City on a Hill students pass by the nonprofit's office on their way to class, and some like to pop in for a drink from the water cooler. Still, interns Margo Feeney and Emanuel Canuto didn't have a clear picture of what Boston Do Something did until their internships there.

Now, they know firsthand about the youth-leadership courses it runs and the grants it awards to young people. During their two weeks, they updated a database of contacts, designed a flier for a basketball game, and made travel arrangements for a staff trip to Austin, Texas.

"Before, I used to get nervous calling people on the phone," Mr. Canuto said. "But now I don't."

Ms. Feeney enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere. "I thought it was going to be strict, like people telling you, 'Do this,' " she said. "But here it's much more open."

The nonprofit youth arts organization ZUMIX in East Boston has a similar laid-back demeanor, its large one-room office cluttered with musical instruments and computers.

But this grassroots group has a high-tech edge, offering programs that train young people about the emerging role of technology in the arts.

Intern Niambe McIntosh, who enjoys spending time in City on a Hill's computer lab, asked for an internship where she could learn about technology. She helped the ZUMIX staff reorganize its computer filing system and learned how to use Internet search tools.

She and classmate David Roitfarb also pitched in with other routine office tasks and attended meetings with the staff, including a presentation at the Boston Foundation on effective community programs.

At the foundation's 24th-floor offices at One Boston Place, they found classmate Aleida Nu¤ez, who was interning for the foundation's Persistent Poverty Project.

Little Things Mean a Lot

Little things during her internship meant a lot to Ms. Nu¤ez, like being given her own office and voice-mail box and having co-workers ask her to lunch.

In two short weeks, she seemed to undergo a transformation. Dresses replaced sweatshirts and jeans. Afterward, she said, she thought she even sounded more adult when she spoke.

When she first started, Ms. Nu¤ez wished that she had paid more attention at school the week before, when students participated in a number of role-playing exercises--like what to do if a second telephone call came in when they were on the phone. She learned the hard way: It happened during her first week on the job, and she did not know what to do.

Actually being in a workplace, she decided, "is way different than from someone just sitting there and telling you, 'You have to do this in an office."'

At the end of intersession, Ms. Nu¤ez told her classmates about her experiences.

"I have always tried to picture myself becoming an adult, but I could never seem to finish the portrait, whether because I was frightened at the thought of growing up, or just not having enough faith," she said. "But in these two weeks, I've really got the feel of being that someone. I've realized it's not as scary as I thought, and now I find myself saying, 'I'm going to do it. I want to be that someone."'

Intersession also served the purpose of bringing members of the community into the school. Ms. Nu¤ez's supervisor, Amanda Flores-Witte, came to hear her speak at a town meeting.

"There's a really interesting dynamic between the children and the teachers, a type of camaraderie," Ms. Flores-Witte observed. "It made me kind of envious. They got along so well, and Aleida feels very at home there. It just totally changes your concept of high school."

Though nearly all the students stayed with their original internships for both weeks, a few did not work out exactly as planned, Ms. Cheney acknowledged.

Lessons Learned

But even the less-than-perfect experiences offered some meaningful lessons. For one student, working in Sen. Kerry's office solidified her interest in politics. But for another, it helped her decide that politics was not her cup of tea.

With the school's first intersession under its belt, Ms. Cheney is already thinking about how to improve it for next year.

For instance, she said she would like to give students more training in how to evaluate themselves. The students were expected to keep journals, guided by a series of questions like: "What was something you saw happen today, that if you had been in charge, you would have done differently?" But some just raced down the list and wrote one-word answers.

"We need to make it clear that it wasn't just documentation for us, or some busywork we assigned; the questions we asked were for a reason," Ms. Cheney said.

Based on feedback from the supervisors, she is also considering implementing a more formal, competitive interview process. That way, she noted, supervisors will get more of a choice of who their interns are, and students will get a better sense of what to expect in the real-life job-hunting process.

Next year, Mr. Solomon hopes the school can create more time for students to share what they learned. He would also love to read aloud or post some of the students' glowing evaluations. "Kids should see that," he remarked. "It's one thing to see their friend joking around in the hall, and then another to look at this letter, and see the way [their supervisor] talks about them" as a responsible worker.

Mr. Solomon and other staff members are also hoping that the students' intersession experiences open the doors to summer or after-school jobs down the road and spark an interest in potential careers.

"These groups have now seen that young people can be very productive citizens and that they are ready to contribute," Ms. Cheney said. "And the young people have a new understanding of things like what it means to be on time."

It has also helped build new allies.

"When our executive director first told me that we were going to have a City on a Hill intern, I have to admit I groaned (quietly, to myself)," Jennifer Economos, the program officer at the Boston Plan for Excellence in the Public Schools, a public-education fund, wrote in her evaluation of the program. "I'm always delighted to work with teens, but I knew my schedule would be close to frantic for the next month. ...

"Marisa, you turned me around! Now I wonder how on earth we'll manage without your help."

This series is being underwritten by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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