Maryvale students tackle community challenges through public policy lens in statewide showcase at ASU

Issues ranged from homelessness to child abuse to littering in Project Citizen competition


People sit facing each other at tables in a classroom setting

Judges (left) listen as middle school students present their public policy proposals at the Arizona showcase of Project Citizen in a competition hosted by Arizona State University's School of Public Affairs. Photo courtesy Cartwright Elementary School District

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Local middle school students saw their civics lessons go beyond textbooks as they proposed real policy solutions at a recent competition at Arizona State University.

ASU’s School of Public Affairs hosted Arizona’s showcase of Project Citizen. The showcase, sponsored by the national Center for Civic Education and the Arizona Bar Foundation, challenges students to collaborate in learning about actual issues in their communities, and then devise and publicly present proposals recommending policy solutions involving local government.

Ten teams of students from four Cartwright Elementary School District schools in the west Phoenix community of Maryvale participated in the May event, co-hosted by the School of Public Affairs and the Arizona Bar Foundation.

An ASU Community Catalyst grant helped support the showcase, held at the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus.

“In Project Citizen, students were to identify a community problem, then look at alternative policies and what other cities are doing on this issue,” said School of Public Affairs Senior Research Analyst Tara Bartlett, who helped organize the event. “Then they created their own policy and an action plan for implementation.”

Forty judges, including representatives from various civic and legal organizations, lawyers, local policy experts and ASU faculty and staff joined real judges and staff from municipal and state courts in evaluating the proposals.

The competition awarded prizes for the best portfolio of research and recommendations; best presentation at a hearing before the judges; and a popular vote among the student participants.

‘Full immersion’ into public policy

Elizabeth Murray, a teacher at the Raul H. Castro Academy of Fine Arts whose students won two of the three prizes, said the experience gave students “full immersion” into the world of public policy.

“Instead of learning about public policy in the traditional way, scholars created their own by looking at their communities in a new way with the intention to help and open their minds to a solution-oriented approach,” she said. “Through Project Citizen, scholars learned about local government, developed critical research skills, learned and used new technologies, experienced collaboration and cooperation and truly learned how every citizen, even kids, can help improve their communities."

Judges said the proposals impressed them and left them confident about the future.

Tim Eigo, editor of Arizona Attorney magazine, said he and fellow judges looked for proposals that demonstrated deep research, creativity and team collaboration.

“The real-life challenges the teams address are the most serious that society faces, including homelessness, pollution, bullying and mental health,” said Eigo, who has judged previous Project Citizen competitions.

The winning proposals

  • Students from teacher Laurie Richards’ Estrella Middle School class won the portfolio honor for their presentation “Linking Homeless Populations to Services.” After researching homelessness, the students recommended the city of Phoenix provide mobile care trailers stationed at key areas. People experiencing homelessness who need services would be less intimidated by a trailer brought to a location near them than by having to make their way into a more imposing public building, the students said.
  • A team from teacher Elizabeth Murray’s Raul H. Castro Academy of Fine Arts class won the hearing prize for their public presentation on combating homelessness. In it, they recommended building more shelters with several funding mechanisms.
  • Another team from Castro, also taught by Murray, was one of several that took on the problem of litter along streets and properties. Castro’s Team 6 received the popular vote prize. They recommended offenders be given a choice of a hefty fine or community service — each depending on how much trash they were responsible for wrongfully depositing. The team also recommended the city place more and larger trash receptacles throughout the community.

Sabrina Estrada, senior program coordinator for civic health at the Center for the Future of Arizona, said this was the first year she was a Project Citizen judge and she plans to volunteer for it again.

“It was truly inspiring to see these middle school youth from such diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures come together and think critically about issues facing our communities and propose well-thought-out solutions to address very challenging topics,” Estrada said. “These students were incredibly brave, presenting research on the issues, discussing current policies, suggesting proposed policies or solutions and delivering action plans for their proposals.”

Mark McCall, legal services innovation manager for the Arizona Supreme Court, has judged for Project Citizen (PC) for many years.

“After leaving a PC showcase, I am always optimistic for the future,” said McCall, a former middle school teacher. “I appreciate the hard work and dedication of teachers who go beyond the standard curriculum to engage their students in civic learning.”

McCall said students gain a better understanding of government workings through close consideration of community issues.

“More importantly, they see where they fit in the system as citizens who partake in dialogue and contribute to the process in a meaningful way,” he said. “Students who participate in Project Citizen are more likely to participate in civic processes as adults.”

‘Community solutions don’t happen in a vacuum’

Project Citizen helps youth learn what goes into creating workable community solutions through policy proposals, said School of Public Affairs Professor Daniel Schugurensky, who directs the Participatory Governance Initiative at Watts College and was also a judge. “Community solutions don’t happen in a vacuum and are connected to policymaking."

Cartwright District Superintendent LeeAnn Aguilar-Lawlor said Project Citizen “equips scholars with skills to research and cite reliable sources and develop solutions to various problems. By addressing issues such as homelessness, child abuse and littering, our students exemplify excellence in public engagement.”

The Arizona Bar Foundation issued a statement saying the students impressed the judges, and the event’s locations on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus “provided perfect settings for the simulated hearings and the awards ceremony, respectively. The Arizona Bar Foundation extends its most sincere thanks to ASU for helping to make this event a success for the students.”

Schugurensky said many of the students made their first trip to ASU and had a positive experience they will remember.

Eigo said that, while some believe civics education may be endangered and there exists a greater need for it than ever, students involved in Project Citizen “are vibrant testimony to the impact that a dedicated, focused curriculum can have. Having progressed through the program, these students have learned the value of respectful, informed and vigorous debate.”

Project Citizen gives students “the tools to do their part to ensure a healthy democracy and a society that respects neighbors while it honors equity and a respect for constitutional principles,” Eigo said.

The Center for Civic Education will hold the annual national showcase featuring the best of the state showcases.

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