Public Achievement: Transforming Education

Northern Az U- Public Achievement 2 Northern Az U- Public Achievement

By: Noelle Johnson
Public Achievement Coordinator
Northern Arizona University

15 students were gathered in a room in Minnesota and asked to identify challenges that face their community and public spaces. Harry Boyte realized then that youth have a lot to say and do indeed feel strongly about community issues and change when given the space to explore their inner voice. Public Achievement (PA) is now going into its 24th year as a movement and involves youth in this practice as the foundation for the work. PA is a different kind of politics – public work — that empowers students and others, and can transform schools, colleges, and communities. Started in 1990 by Harry Boyte, who was active as a college student in the Citizenship Education Program (CEP) of the civil rights movement, and sponsored by the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Public Achievement translated the empowering pedagogies of CEP into the current day. Public Achievement has grown and is now flourishing in hundreds of communities, schools, and colleges in the US and more than two dozen countries, including Japan, South Africa, the West Bank, Poland and Northern Ireland.

Northern Az U- Public Achievement 3
Students at Kinlani Bordertown Dormitory in Flagstaff, Arizona turn compost to maintain one of their ongoing projects.

At least 15 of those institutions are participants in the American Democracy Project and The Democracy Commitment. The main question, how can youth be active and engaged citizens in our democracy and see themselves as co-creators has changed the way that institutions are involved with the community and local school. It has also changed the way that teachers are educating their students in K-12 education as well as higher education. It has begun to produce new understandings of the educational vocation, “citizen teacher.”

PA teaches concepts such as democracy, power, politics, public work, citizenship, and diversity through hands on projects. Every site adopts its own model of PA to fit the unique needs of the students and school. The general format involves K-12 students who work with undergraduates at a college and while learning these concepts, decide on an issue and a problem they want to solve and a project that goes with that. The university students are “coaches” for these students and take on a role that is actively engaging, mentoring and encouraging youth. Through both courses and community engagement the undergraduate students are benefitting from this program as well as the youth they work with. A student at Northern Arizona University wrote, “I have never had a professor or teacher want to get to know their students as much as Lauren (Berutich) does. She truly cares about her students and changing the world by Public Achievement”. This student wrote this in a response discussing the one-to-one relational meeting that she had with her professor. She also mentioned that she wished more professors would take this time with their students, to truly understand who they are. This is one benefit the Public Achievement program has had on higher education. Not only are students more engaged in the classroom and the community but also the instructors take the time to model this to their students. PA takes a different form at each site when it comes to training the coaches but there is a free space created within each class and students have the ability to explore and critically think about current issues as well as how this program can affect change in our current educational system. College and K-12 students are becoming active and engaged citizens, understanding what a democracy is, and enacting change in their communities with the power that they have.

Last summer at the American Democracy Project National Meeting in Denver, Public Achievement coaches and coordinators from across the U.S. gathered to talk about their work and how they can collaborate with one another. American Democracy project and The Democracy Commitment both create a space where PA coaches and coordinators can share the work that they are doing as well as help others implement this program at their locations. June 5th through 7th, at the next ADP/TDC National Meeting there will be coaches and coordinators from across the U.S. that will be present to share their experiences and information for other schools that are interested in starting this program at their location.

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