Feeling engaged in school can often make the difference between dropping out and graduating, and educators know middle school is a key time to hold students' attention.
The group Citizen Schools is targeting six middle schools in the city with an enrichment program that brings in business mentors and extra teachers. It started more than a decade ago in Boston, where evaluators found it boosted attendance and academic achievement.
At the Bronx Writing Academy, a sixth grader, Jaela Simon Banks, is planning the budget for an imaginary soccer franchise with a volunteer from the private-equity firm Carlyle Group. She says she chose soccer over basketball or baseball -- because the players are cheaper.
"Most players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, they were high payers and they’re paid like in the thousands or millions," she said.
Her classmate, Baruch Rogers Mayo, agrees this strategy can make their franchise more profitable.
"It's like you spend less, you make more. Makes you happy, makes me happy, makes all of us happy," he said.
The students are paired with volunteers who know about budgeting and marketing. They meet after school twice a week, for 10 weeks, and are guided by full-time staffers and paid teaching fellows from Americorps who also work with the students during school hours. Later this spring, they will make final presentations to their mentors and teachers. The program also offers homework help and tutoring.
Nitzan Pelman, executive director of Citizen Schools New York, says the goal is to give kids from low-income communities the same opportunities as students in wealthy ones.
"Think about what are kids doing at 4:30 or 5 in the afternoon? They’re at yearbook, they’re in model U.N., or learning how to play the piano. They’re playing a sport," she said. "They’re in productive learning environments for 10, 12, 14 hours every single day. And that’s what it takes."
Just 17 percent of the students at Bronx Writing Academy were proficient on last year’s English Language Arts exams, and a little more than a third were proficient in math.
The principal, Kamar Samuels, paid $100,000 to bring the program to his school. He added it’s too soon to know if it's paying off academically, since it only started in September, but he's pleased to see higher attendance, especially among kids with learning disabilities.
"They’re working on real work," he said. "They’re working on authentic math and they’re struggling through it but you know what? They need to work, they need to prepare."