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Corporate Volunteers Learn Lessons in The Bronx

By Patrick Wall | March 25, 2013 8:16am

CONCOURSE — One afternoon last week, three Ernst & Young associates boarded the subway near their Times Square headquarters and rode to The Bronx to meet with a group of T-shirt designers.

One associate from the global professional services firm helped a team calculate production costs, while another discussed brand identity and the third reviewed design sketches.

When the meeting concluded, there was some handshaking and small talk, then the would-be designers strapped on their backpacks, lined up and waited to be dismissed by their teacher.

“Business is in my blood,” said Esthefany Garcia, 13, a seventh-grader who chose the Ernst & Young workshop out of many options offered through an enrichment program at the Bronx Writing Academy on East 167th Street.

“This is the time,” she said of the after-school course, “when we’re really learning.”

Ernst & Young is one of several companies and colleges that send volunteers to the program run by Citizen Schools, a nonprofit that helps middle schools in various cities add extra learning time.

At Bronx Writing Academy, or BWA, and other public schools that partner with the agency, students in certain grades are required to stay until 6 p.m.

On certain days, AmeriCorps fellows offer tutoring and college prep after the normal school day ends.

But two days a week at BWA, dozens of volunteers run 30 “apprenticeships” — 10-week projects in areas such as science, finance, media, law and more taught by experts in each field.

Corporate volunteers guide students on stock market and video game projects, while a Juilliard team teaches drumming and a Columbia student coaches chess. Other workshops focus on business blogging, biking, curating exhibits, 60s fashion and comic books.

“Everyone knows that there’s a huge achievement gap in America,” between students in high- and low-income areas, said Jessi Brunken, the Citizen Schools coordinator at BWA. “But the thing that people don’t talk about is that there’s also an opportunity gap.”

Sixth- and seventh-graders at BWA choose two semester-long apprenticeships that each culminate in a final product or performance.

In the Ernst & Young apprenticeship, called “Fashion Inc.,” seventh-grade students design T-shirts for a charity group, then plot the most cost-effective way to produce them. (Only prototypes are actually created.)

At the culminating event, called a “WOW!”, the students will wear the prototype T-shirts as they present their mock business plans to Ernst & Young executives at their 5 Times Square office.

The thought of that day has Nishira Vega, 12, feeling nervous.

“I don’t know if they’ll think my T-shirt sucks,” she fretted, “or if it’s the best.”

On Thursday, she and her teammates worked with AmeriCorps teacher Nyle Fuentes, 23, and Ernst & Young volunteer Sam Chen, 27, to price their shirts and pick a producer. They settled on Stripes, a fictional North Carolina company with higher labor costs than overseas competitors, but better quality and delivery times.

Meanwhile, Derek Matus, 21, critiqued shirt sketches. One meant to oppose a notorious African warlord could be mistaken for a campaign shirt to elect the man, Matus noted. (The student quickly penciled a circle around the man’s name and drew a line through it.)

Mary Koser, 24, coached students on crafting their brands. As a warm-up, they identified corporate logos — which they aced, save for a couple of luxury car companies.

“If I want to be a designer, I have to know the four P’s,” said Janpaul Then, 12, recalling the branding lesson. “Product, price, promotion and place.”

Of course, it isn’t just the students who find the apprenticeship enlightening.

“It’s definitely been an eye-opening experience for me,” said Koser, who had never visited The Bronx before the program. “I wanted to get outside my comfort zone.”

Chen picked up some educator essentials — less lectures, more worksheets — while applying a real-life strategy that usually guides his financial writing in the abstract. “Make it like a seventh-grader could read it and comprehend,” he said.

About 45 Ernst & Young employees in New York have volunteered to teach 90 minutes per week and plan lessons in the two years that the firm has participated in the program.

The company hires many recent college graduates who have a deep commitment both to community service and education, as well as a knack for working with children, said Rich Jeanneret, vice chairman of the firm’s Transaction Advisory Services Americas division.

He recalled a boy who teachers had said barely spoke in school because of a family tragedy, but who was “full of energy and life and personality” by the time of the WOW! presentation.

“I thought, ‘Boy, this kid has a lot of potential,’” Jeanneret said. “‘He’ll be working with us some day.’”

Nishira, the student anxious about those final presentations, said she knows what she must do to make an equally strong impression.

“I’m going to work my tush off,” she said. And then, on the big day, “I’m going to stand straight and speak the truth.”