The trash cans at Feltonville Intermediate School in North Philadelphia were full to the brim for days. Cans and bottles littered the front steps and playgrounds. The school was, a group of students noticed, dirty.
Why? The Feltonville students wanted to know. They talked to the principal and found out what is likely true at many Philadelphia schools these days: Feltonville could only afford a janitor to work one day a week. The students, part of a civic engagement enrichment program, hosted a rally, urging their classmates to think about what kind of learning environment a dirty school creates, and encouraging them to keep Feltonville clean by throwing trash in bins and helping out teachers and staff.
Across town in Mantua, middle schoolers at Alain Locke Elementary School had a different issue they wanted to address: Gun violence, which has been on the rise in their neighborhood in recent years.The students made several five-foot signs and planned a parade to educate their peers and community members about the importance of gun control.
These are just two examples of the actions taken by middle school children who have been given the opportunity to participate in the Young Heroes Outreach Program (YHOP), an initiative of the National Liberty Museum. The program has two parts. Part one: Educators from the museum teach participating students about civic engagement, and the work that other young people have done to address problems they see in Philadelphia. Part two: Students are given time and tools to create and implement a project that addresses a problem in their own community.
A national civics assessment survey found that less than one-third of eighth graders understood the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and less than a fifth of high school seniors understood how democracy benefits from citizen participation.
The concept is simple. But the students who participate in it, and the teachers who host it, say its impacts are profound.
“In YHOP, I learned that it is good to be peaceful and I also learned my rights as a child in the United States of America,” said a 6th grade student at Universal Vare Charter School.
The YHOP program fills a real gap in elementary and middle school education, a space that used to be filled by civics classes before they were cut in the 1960s due to school underfunding and high stakes testing. A recent national civics assessment found that less than one-third of eighth graders understood the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and less than a fifth of high school seniors understood how democracy benefits from citizen participation. In 2003, a movement to reinvigorate civics ed began to form, bolstered by a groundbreaking report that showed the dire straits of democratic education—including that minorities and poor students are less likely to attend schools with high-quality civics education, and far less likely to vote. Philadelphia has a vibrant arm of this movement, and YHOP—along with a similar program, Need In Deed—could be an important component.
Alan Holmes, who coordinates the Young Heroes Outreach Program for the National Liberty Museum, says the program was a natural fit with the museum’s emphasis on honoring the lives and actions of people who have given others access to greater freedom, equality, and empowerment. The initiative began with another simple idea with equally deep impacts: “The youth of our city need to be engaged with what’s going on,” says Holmes.
In 2000, the museum began by giving Young Heroes Awards to students who have “displayed excellent character by creating positive change in their schools and communities.” Winners have included Tauheed Baukman, who was a leader in the student movement against the doomsday budget of 2013, and Talia Santiago, who worked against zero tolerance policies that punished students with suspensions for first time infractions like skipping school.
In 2011, museum educators visited a single city school to do a “one-off assembly” around the Young Heroes award, to engage students in the kind of civic learning they wouldn’t get in a normal school day. The response was more enthusiastic than they expected. Students wanted to know more about their rights and were excited about the “young heroes” that the museum educators had talked about as models.
That prompted the Liberty Museum to create the YHOP program, as a way for students from around the city to learn the skills they need to create a better world. The 10-part curriculum includes lessons about past Young Heroes and the rules of democracy , and is designed so that teachers, after a few years, can run the program themselves, without needing Liberty Museum staff. Participating teachers—usually English or social studies, but sometimes even math or computer—give over part of their classroom time to the education portion of YHOP. The action phase usually gets implemented during lunch or after school as a club.
The program began serving 7th and 8th graders, but has started targeting students as young as 4th grade. Now in its fifth year, YHOP offers its program for free in 13 Philadelphia schools, with plans to expand to three more next year. Holmes says the Museum would like the YHOP curriculum to keep spreading throughout the District.
Now in its fifth year, the Museum’s Young Heroes Outreach Program is offerred for free in 13 Philadelphia schools, with plans to expand to three more next year. The Museum would like the YHOP curriculum to keep spreading throughout the District.
“We built a curriculum that teaches responsible usage of First Amendment rights, character excellence and civic engagement to kickstart the heroic potential in every student,” says Holmes. “YHOP was started to empower students who may not already have the motivation or confidence to stand up and make changes.”
After the 10 classroom civics lessons, students decide what kind of project they want to complete as a group. “As opposed to ‘serving’ the community, we wanted to really empower students to take action of their own,” says Holmes.
Educators show students videos about different issues, and lead them on a walk around school and the neighborhood so they can begin to see their community and its problems with fresh eyes. Afterwards, they’re asked to report on what they saw.
“My students saw a bunch of kids standing around [the playground] by themselves,” says Eve Boyd, a school counselor at St. Christopher’s Catholic School in Northeast Philadelphia. “So they researched why that happens. And then they found places where people had used organized games, and learned that it really affected recess times.” That year the 6th grade students at St. Christopher’s designed and implemented an anti-bullying campaign in which all students had to participate in organized recess games so no child was left out.
Boyd said she knew YHOP was a success when students gave up time at their lunch break to work on the project. She was impressed by how hard and how persistently participating students worked to see the project to completion. The club has grown every year since she started participating in 2011. “It’s so fun to be with kids who feel that excitement and challenge to take on and create a project for their school community and feel like they’re really making a change,” Boyd says.
Holmes says in addition to adding schools to the YHOP program the Museum plans to develop a different curriculum for each individual grade, to provide civics lessons at every point in students’ learning.
“This is different from anything else they’re being taught,” says Boyd. “It reminds young students of their First Amendment rights, but really that they make choices every day that have a real ability to impact their community.”