Elementary Empowerment: Public Achievement at Jackson

By Christie Vogt, Sprockets Communications and Network Associate; photos by Pa Na Lor

April 30, 2014

Most of their friends have gone home for the day, but at 3:45 p.m. on a Tuesday, a small group of third through fifth-graders are sitting in a circle at Jackson Elementary School, ready for another afternoon of flexing their change agent muscles. The students are a bit wary of the stranger hovering in the room, but once they hear why I’m visiting, a lightbulb goes off in young Naziah’s head: “We’re special!” she declares.

Two of their coaches, Kailey Dahlberg and Sarah Fish, ask if anyone would share what the group has been up to this year and what they’re working on today. Naziah speaks up again, giving a concise wrapup of what it means to be on a Public Achievement team. At the beginning of the year, “we all picked something to support,” she starts. Next, they shared their topics with their classmates and conducted a vote to decide which one they'd work on. The students had a shared interest in the Children’s Hospital and further worked towards narrowing their cause. “We did some research,” Naziah continues, “and then decided on juvenile arthritis.” On April 22, the students will run and walk around the school grounds to raise money for their peers with juvenile arthritis at what they’re calling the Jackson JAM or Juvenile Arthritis Marathon.

Coach Kailey later remarked, “It’s like she was reading out of  the Public Achievement book!” “You didn’t prep her for that?” I tease. “No! I swear she’s going to be President of the United States.”

Public Achievement is a youth civic organizing model developed by the Center for Democracy and Citizenship in 1990. Today it is used in schools and communities across the country and internationally. While most teams gather during the school day, Jackson Elementary School is the first after-school Public Achievement site in the Sprockets network.

Dennis Donovan, National Organizer for Public Achievement, remarks, “The Center for Democracy and Citizenship is very pleased to have had Public Achievement integrated into after-school programs as a way to empower young people to make change on things that matter to them.”

As youth workers have likely discovered already through their collaboration with young people, the Public Achievement organizing model recognizes that people of every age have valuable skills, talents and ideas, and that by learning to work strategically with others they can solve problems and build sustainable democratic societies.

Public Achievement at Jackson Elementary School - St. Paul, MN - Sprockets

Public Achievement coaches, in this case all Augsburg College special education teacher candidates, are guides and facilitators but do not lead or direct the youth’s activities. These Augsburg students became involved in Public Achievement through the required course Building the Public Good: Public Achievement and Organizing and are supervised weekly by Augsburg faculty members and co-instructors Susan O’Connor and Donna Patterson.

Today, the Jackson JAM group is preparing for their upcoming public interactions by practicing their strategy on some teachers and other students in the building. “Mr. Nelson, we’re raising money so children with juvenile arthritis can do everything everybody else does these days.” An irresistible grin accompanies an outstretched arm with an envelope in hand. “Would you like to donate?”

They move down the hall and approach a new group of youth and adults. “Kids that have joint pain can’t do everything everybody else does these days,” they begin again as their peers listen with curiosity. “They have to take pills, get shots...we want to give money to the hospital to help. Who wants to donate?” At least seven small hands shoot into the air.

Across the hall, coaches Josh Silbaugh and Faith Binman are working with another group of Public Achievement students focused on the issue of homelessness. Fifth-grader Molly tells me that a speaker visited their group and inspired them to take on their current project -- collecting sock donations to deliver to SafeZone, a drop-in center for homeless youth. That visitor was Cheree O’Shields, a citizen nurse who experienced homelessness as a young person. “She said homeless people really need socks,” Molly explains. “They might have one pair, but then they get stinky, grow fungus, get infected.”

Public Achievement at Jackson Elementary School - St. Paul, MN - Sprockets

“Public Achievement is really very cool because I like to help people, and this program helped me learn how to,” Molly contemplates. “It’s very educational. It teaches you about leadership.” Before scurrying off to assist her teammates with sock box construction, she adds, “Thank you for letting me share with you.”

As Molly’s peers are at work around the room on different tasks, I hear about three students’ visit to the principal’s office, not because they were in trouble but because they had business to attend to -- budget talks. Not many ten-year-olds are accustomed to that type of sit-down.

In addition to the sock drive, the students are planning for an end-of-year celebration, complete with committees and to-do lists. The Refreshment, Planning, Communications, Event, and Entertainment committees work on everything from selecting a venue, staying on budget, establishing goals, orchestrating parking, promoting the event, and securing a top-notch DJ. These students must host some epic birthday parties when they’re not busy organizing for change.

As the afternoon winds down, Public Achievement teams do an evaluation of the day’s work -- a reflection usually led by the youth themselves. Over at the JAM group, Jasmine and Naziah immediately volunteer to lead the closing. Jasmine, the coaches later share, was very shy and reserved at the beginning of the year and would only talk to the adults individually. She has really “come out of her shell...she’s become a facilitator, an encourager.”

During the reflection, the students shared that they liked going around practicing their public engagement with other youth and adults. “People were nervous, but you did it anyway!” affirms Susan O’Connor, Augsburg’s coordinator of special education. The students share ideas of how they can continue to get the word out about their marathon: talking to close neighbors, my classroom, my teachers.

Public Achievement at Jackson Elementary School - St. Paul, MN - Sprockets

Asked about the challenges of coaching, the adults remarked that it can be difficult to get at what the issue is that the students want to work on. They described a “tension” between not wanting to “push” yet wanting to find out “what the kids’ passion is.” Josh adds, “It’s a process...the bumps are supposed to be there.”

Along with the bumps are clear moments of triumph. “Seeing the shyer kids take more initiative” is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a coach, the adults concurred. They also spoke of how Public Achievement has particularly transformed a student on the team who has special needs. She “feels accepted, included, like she belongs...everyone intermixes.”

The Augsburg students and faculty believe that if students are “given the right tools, they can do great things,” Susan explains. She also spoke of a Public Achievement pilot in Fridley which involved youth with emotional and behavioral disorders: “If [the students] are doing meaningful things then they engage, and they engage appropriately.”

The model lives on beyond these scheduled meetings, coach Kailey demonstrates. She explains that she has learned to use Public Achievement tools in her current job outside of Jackson; “I give more power and authority to the youth...they feel empowered.” The Augsburg students also spoke of the extensive preparation that goes on behind the scenes to be effective coaches and to essentially “get people with the same interests working together to make change.”

Harry Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship (CDC), asserts that partnerships like these between the CDC and out-of-school time are “helping to pioneer a paradigm shift in education from a deficit approach--the achievement gap--to an empowerment approach, with enormous implications for the future of the whole field.”

Public Achievement at Jackson Elementary School - St. Paul, MN - Sprockets