“Problem” students become problem solvers

By Wendi Wheeler ’06

chalkboard with quote from article

Visualize young people in our public schools making positive change in their communities. Who comes to mind? Probably not middle school students in the special education classroom—kids with emotional and behavioral disorders who have difficulty paying attention and communicating with each other or their teachers.

Typically, special education students are labeled as troublemakers. They are marginalized, silenced, and given little choice in their daily school tasks. But a partnership between Augsburg College and Fridley Middle School hopes to change that. By giving students a voice in their education and allowing them to focus their time and energy on an issue they care about, this program has turned “problem” students into public problem solvers.

Public Achievement in special education

Piloted in the 2010-11 academic year, the program is a partnership between Augsburg’s Center for Democracy and Citizenship, the Augsburg special education faculty and students in the Master of Arts in Education (MAE) program, and teachers and students from Fridley Middle School.

Augsburg’s project began when Susan O’Connor, associate professor of special education at Augsburg, heard Dennis Donovan and Nan Skelton of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship speak about the Public Achievement model.

The program with Fridley Middle School uses the Public Achievement model for youth civic organizing developed by Harry Boyte of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship. In the classroom, Public Achievement serves as an empowerment tool that allows students to create change in an area that they select and take ownership of as a group.

To O’Connor, Public Achievement seemed like a fit for special education classrooms. “It was like the self-advocacy tool we are always encouraging teachers to use with their students,” she says. “The kids with EBD (emotional/behavioral disorders) are kids that typically don’t have a voice in their school work. They’re told what to do. They’re told how to act,” she says.

O’Connor and her colleagues from the Augsburg special education faculty attended classes to learn how to implement Public Achievement in the classroom. They looked for a location to pilot the project and settled on Fridley Middle School because two of the special education teachers–Michael Ricci ’07 and Alissa Blood ’07–are graduates of the Augsburg teacher education program. Finally, they hand-picked five MAE students from the Critical Issues seminar course to work with the middle school students and then began weekly classes at Fridley in the fall term.

A new way of teaching and learning

The Public Achievement model identifies classroom teachers as coaches and places all responsibility for decision-making and action on the students. The middle school students identified two projects: one concerning alternative energy and another on homelessness.

In each project, the students were responsible for designing every aspect. They created timelines, conducted research, contacted experts and members of the community to schedule speaking engagements or field trips, and communicated about their projects with faculty and students in their school.

Cheryl McClellan, an Augsburg MAE student, worked with the “Solar Heroes” team on installing solar panels to light the school’s flag and a solar thermal to heat water for domestic uses at the school. “The idea is the students decide who gets invited to be a part of the project. They find out how to contact people, send them an email or call, and follow up with them.” At the end of the year, Solar Heroes had not been able to finalize the projects but pledged to continue working on fundraising initiatives for the solar panels.

For many of the students, these were tasks they had never been entrusted to perform. In addition to learning about how it feels to be empowered, McClellan says students also came to understand that community organizing and advocacy is not always easy work. “You get a lot of ‘no’s,’ but they are learning the skills to move forward.”

Kayla Krebs is one of the Augsburg MAE students working with “Team Making a Way,” the class focused on homelessness. Her students went to the State Capitol to speak with legislators and also made fleece blankets to donate to Families Moving Forward, a North Minneapolis shelter that provides services for families with children who are experiencing homelessness.

Krebs sees her role in the classroom as a facilitator. “I learned how to be flexible and how to let the students’ voices shine.” For students with special needs, she says this is an important part of the learning process because “so many times, people tell them what to do.”

Molly McInnis, an Augsburg MAE student, says the program has taught her a new way of teaching. “I have learned how to let the students make the decisions and drive their own project,” she says. “I can’t come in and be a teacher–I need to listen to them and let them lead.”

Blood says the program was beneficial to her students because they struggle with taking responsibility. “This program has given them a sense of power and responsibility and taught them that what they think and do matters. They are much more committed and have a sense of pride in what they are doing.”

By giving students the power to choose the issues they want to work on and the methods of solving problems, Donovan says the students have developed the capacity to become public problem solvers. That means they work to solve problems affecting the public and doing it in a public way. The students created displays for cases outside their classroom, logos and posters for their projects, appeared on the FMS Friday radio broadcast, spoke at a luncheon at Augsburg, and held a public presentation at the school. “Kids that are marginalized really rise to the top when they are given power,” he says.

“In education, we say it’s not an achievement gap–it’s an empowerment gap,” Donovan says. “We have to ask ourselves how we can empower teachers and students to learn about things that are meaningful to them and have a voice in their education.”

Lessons for teachers

One of the most important reasons for implementing this Public Achievement project was to drive institutional change, O’Connor says. “We want these students to be seen in a more positive light, not only as trouble makers.” She adds that the Fridley students were noticed by their administrators and peers, recognized publicly for their work, and asked to contribute to future discussions.

Another goal of the project is to bring lessons learned by the Augsburg students and faculty into the special education curriculum at Augsburg. The faculty are creating a three-year plan to integrate with the MAE program and hope to develop a Public Achievement coaching course that can be used in other departments.

Donovan is excited to see how this project will affect Augsburg’s special education curriculum and students. “I think Augsburg students are going to be different teachers because of this experience,” he says. A former public school administrator, Donovan says he is passionate about working with teachers and helping them acquire new skills for the classroom.

Helping the Fridley students find their voice and become more visible in their middle school community are outcomes that also had a strong impact on the Augsburg students who will one day lead their own classrooms.

Heidi Austin, an Augsburg MAE student who worked with the Solar Heroes group, says that as a future teacher, this program makes her very hopeful. “It is so important to give kids an opportunity to see that they can make a difference,” she says. “I came in thinking there wasn’t going to be much progress with this project, but I’ve been totally blown away with what they’ve done.”

Speaking to the Augsburg community at an event in May, McClellan said this project transformed the Fridley Middle School culture, the students, and also transformed her personally in a way she hadn’t anticipated. “At my core I am a better parent, a better citizen, and a better teacher,” she said.

She commented that the students felt empowered by their accomplishments and the public recognition they received. “I have learned that these kids who are so often silenced have a strong voice.”

picture of the Fridley team

Back [L to R]: Dennis Donovan, Stephen Keeler, Cheryl McClennan, Alissa Blood, Steph Bloxham, Heidi Austin, Barbara West
Middle [L to R]: Michael Ricci, Susan O’Connor, Dee Vodicka, Elizabeth Ankeny, Donna Patterson
Front [L to R]: Molly McInnis, Becki Hamlin, Kayla Krebs

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