U students support global perspectives of grade schoolers

by Margaret Bell

Sixth-grader Alicia Wichlacz is passionate about banning landmines.
The St. Bernard’s Grade School student from North St. Paul is part of the Public Achievement program through the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
Every Thursday morning, a group of 20 college students from the University’s civic education political science class visit the elementary school to coach 150 third through eighth graders who are divided into 22 teams.
The University students work with the elementary school students on problems the children have identified and want to work on around their schools and community.
“It gives college-level students the opportunity to get out of the classroom and into a school in the community to help educate and coach younger students on the problems the younger students want to work on,” said political science professor James Farr, who teaches civic education.
Wichlacz said the program has given her a global perspective on issues like the banning of anti-personnel landmines.
“The reason I’m in Public Achievement is because everyday — every 20 minutes — one person gets maimed or killed by landmines. We are here to stop them, to ban them,” said Wichlacz. “We are here to make things happen that are important to (the kids). We are sending a letter to President Clinton to ask him why he did not sign the landmine treaty.”
Wichlacz and the sixth-grade “Ban the Landmine” team are walking a petition around the community to gather support for their cause.
National program organizer Dennis Donovan said this landmine initiative is an example of what the program is about.
“This is a wonderful story where people are learning from each other. You have people doing positive stuff, providing hope to the society in which they live,” said Donovan.
The nation-wide program operates at 20 schools in the Twin Cities, in Mankato and five Kansas City, Missouri schools. A new chapter is starting this summer in Washington, D.C.
Some of the issues at St. Bernard’s are central to that school, such as school uniform changes and better school lunches. The kids also tackle local issues such as gangs and violence and global issues like landmines and pollution.
The coaches — University students — help the kids get resources to complete the projects. However, the elementary school students do most of the work. In each team, the kids organize, write letters, create banners and buttons and make phone calls.
“Coaches are typically college students that go into the schools to rally kids around social issues,” said Public Achievement coordinator Bridget Erlanson. “They guide the teams around public issues, mapping their environment and strategizing an action plan.”
The teams are currently working on projects such as gathering clothes and food for the homeless, collecting pop can tabs for the Ronald McDonald House, holding a Stop the Violence Peace March and inviting public officials to debate landmines.
Donovan, a former St. Bernard’s principal, said the program has been successful because the kids “develop a sense of confidence that I have never seen before in any type of educational project.”