As I enter the classroom, the student’s excitement is obvious in their immediate questions. “Are they here yet?” one student asks. Another speaks up before I get the chance to answer, shouting, “they have to be here.” The classroom teacher, equally excited, starts pulling boxes from behind her desk. I ask the students, “How should we do this.” A few hands are raised. “We should take turns and make sure everyone gets a chance to do something,” the student says. As a teacher this thoughtfulness encourages and excites, and I respond with a big, “great idea, let’s get started!” Our books are here.
The students have been working all semester on a Public Achievement (PA) project to get new books for their library. The teacher, my co-coach, and I have been helping them work towards this goal all semester. We started by getting to know the students and figuring out what they thought were problems in their community. After all the students agreed that the books in the library were old, torn, and outdated, they decided on this as a project. The first step was to figure out how to get the money to buy books. The students decided to sell candy grams and a sucker on a card, and they raised over $500 to buy new books. They got to choose the books, use their math skills to work on figuring out how many they could buy, order, and then put them in the library.
My own experience as a coach made me think deeper about how this process was affecting me, which led me to wonder what it was doing for others. There is a call for this kind of experience in education in both K-12 and the university. Students are engaged, the teachers are excited, and a rich collaboration between university and community blossoms. Intertwinement of engagement, transformation, and excitement is central in the thesis.
Imagine if we could redefine education. If we worked backwards from what is most important for a society to function sustainably all the way down to the knowledge output of the students. What would we come up with? What skills are important for the future of this country and of this world? Public Achievement takes this inverted view on education and addresses issues of how to educate for engaged democratic citizenship. In Public Achievement, coaches work with elementary students to teach them the concepts of Politics, Power, Citizenship, Public Work, Public, Democracy, Free Spaces, Freedom, Interests, and Accountability/Responsibility. This list of concepts is the result of a lifetime of work from Harry Boyte, co-director of the Center for Democracy Citizenship, and Dennis Donavon, PA national organizer. PA is also deeply rooted in the tradition of broad based community organizing and freedom schools, five of which emerged from the civil rights movement. Each of the concepts is a vital element of being an engaged citizen.
According to the Augsburg College website, Public Achievement in its current form started in 1990.
In Flagstaff, Public Achievement started in the spring of 2009 at Killip Elementary School. NAU professors Rom Coles and Miguel Vasquez attended a national conference for the American Democracy Project and heard Harry Boyte, co-founder of PA, speak about the projects. They saw the potential for this work in Flagstaff and the inspiring vision of creating the next generation of leaders. Upon returning to Flagstaff, a movement was started to bring civic engagement to elementary schools across the district. W.F. Killip Elementary School was chosen as the pilot site, and with the help of AmeriCorps member Jason Lowry relational work at the school began. With the support of Joe Guiterrez, Killip principal, and Jeronimo Vasquez, after school program coordinator, the pilot began in spring 2009. These relationships created the groundwork to expand PA in the fall.