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WKU civic engagement project receives boost from White House event

Being part of a White House event to launch a national initiative on civic education has provided a boost for Public Achievement of Kentucky, a youth civic engagement program developed by the Institute for Citizenship & Social Responsibility at WKU.

“I’m thrilled that the ICSR’s Public Achievement program was highlighted at the White House,” Paul Markham, co-director of the ICSR, said of the Jan. 10 event. “We are confident that PA will strengthen communities across our city and the Commonwealth.”

Markham is continuing his effort to build partnerships across the state. “We need all the help we can get,” he said. “Kentucky is full of very talented and committed people and we want educators, nonprofits, business leaders and others to know they can make a huge difference in a young person’s life, and we want to show them how to do it.”

Markham and WKU student Bianca Brown, a senior English and philosophy major from Berkeley, Calif., participated in a panel discussion to discuss the WKU civic engagement project. (More: Markham and Brown featured in report on WKU Public Radio.)

“The conference at the White House was a thoroughly enriching experience for me,” Brown said. “Not only was it useful to hear how important civic education is to high-ranking government officials, but also it was helpful to share ideas with university members and other attendees in a discussion, and to dissect the topics introduced by the panels. The conference has only strengthened my belief that the efforts of the ICSR are crucial in addressing the lack of public engagement and its emphasis in K-16 grades.”

The White House event on Jan. 10 — “For Democracy’s Future: Higher Education Reclaims Our Civic Mission” – included the release of three reports on improving civic education in the nation. They are:

“There is now significant research showing that civic learning models like the one we have developed with Public Achievement of Kentucky develops the knowledge, skills and attitudes for young people to see themselves as problem solvers, builds 21st century job skills, equips students to become positive influences in their schools, and reduces the dropout rate,” Markham said.

WKU graduate Kyle Norris of Glasgow and Bowling Green High School student Christian Crues attended the White House event as representatives of the Bowling Green Independent School District, which is utilizing the Public Achievement program.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan commented that the skills young people gain through civic engagement – critical thinking, working in diverse teams and asking hard questions – are the same skills that they will need to be successful in the economy. “Our young people have an appetite, they’re committed, and they want to be engaged,” Duncan said. “But somehow we’ve walked away from providing those opportunities. So collectively we have to do something very, very different.”

Senior Advisor to the President, Valerie Jarrett, also spoke at the Jan. 10 event and reaffirmed President Obama’s commitment to education. “We hope that this provides us with a launching off point, a catalyst, the beginning of what we hope will be an ongoing engagement,” she said.

Markham said the White House event provided a huge boost to civic learning initiatives that promote civic education and prepare students for careers and citizenship in the 21st century. “It was more than just talk, we received some real commitments from the White House and the Department of Education,” Markham said.

Brown also anticipates that WKU’s program can become a state and national model.

“At WKU, we are fortunate to have the support of many faculty and staff members as well as our university president Gary Ransdell,” she said. “In a recent university press release, Dr. Ransdell acknowledged the importance of our department’s work and said civic responsibility is ‘not just a trend, it is a fundamental core element in our curriculum.’ I feel that with all the ICSR has accomplished and the propulsion we’ve gained since being invited to and convening at the White House, WKU should continue to set the precedent for other universities in sustaining a commitment to encouraging democracy among students.”

About WKU’s Public Achievement program

Public Achievement (PA) is a sustainable model of preparing young people to be engaged citizens in a democracy and addresses a variety of issues both at the individual student level and in the wider school and neighborhood setting. PA is designed to address the educational “achievement gap” by first tackling the “empowerment gap” within the young people of Kentucky’s communities.

According to national research, students are failing to gain the necessary skills and habits of critical thinking, complex reasoning, communication and collaborative work needed for active citizenship and individual and community success. PA focuses on teaching young people the skills and capacities to be effective citizens and leaders in a diverse world, where complex problems require innovative and relationship-based solutions.

The Public Achievement model features a deep form of civic education, which brings together students in primary, secondary, and higher education settings to work together to address “real world” problems.

Public Achievement of Kentucky is an ongoing effort between the Institute for Citizenship & Social Responsibility and area public school systems.

Markham said the ICSR continues to train PA coaches to work in more schools throughout Bowling Green and Warren County systems. The ICSR has partnered with Kentucky’s Council on Postsecondary to implement the PA program in other locations through the state’s GEAR UP grant.

Contact: Paul Markham at paul.markham@wku.edu

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