Project Citizens program puts middle-schoolers in charge of civics projects

Gruening Middle School students Allison Hiseley and Abby Buchanan with their Project Citizen materials. (Photo courtesy of Tonya Shakhov)

Civic engagement sounds, let’s face it, pretty boring to most people. But the eighth graders at Gruening Middle School in Eagle River don’t seem bored at all. They’re competing in Project Citizen, a program that teaches students how to participate in local and state government, training politicians of the future. The state competition took place in Fairbanks on April 21st.

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The students at Gruening aren’t just doing a homework assignment. They’re trying to solve an actual problem in their community. But before they can try to improve something, they have to figure out what it is they want to fix, according to their teacher, Tonya Shakhov.

“We have students research what problems they think are important and affect our community and our society,” Shakhov said.

The classes chose to address a variety of issues, ranging in scope from the local to the global. And it’s not just a theoretical project. Shakhov says the students decide what change they want to see, and then try to actually make it happen.

“They work through informing the level of government, whether it’s the school board, or city council, or state representatives and have them petition for change or support them in their policy,” Shakhov said.

Project Citizen is a nationwide program run by the Center for Civic Education. It’s designed to develop democratic values in middle schoolers, and in the process can also infuse students with motivation to get involved. At Gruening, one of Shakhov’s classes chose to focus on curbing sexual assault because it’s a particularly acute problem in Alaska. Eighth grader Abby Buchanan was shocked to learn the state has the highest rate of sexual assault in the nation.

“Beforehand, I thought this was a nice, calm state, but then I found out about that fact, but that changes things around,” Buchanan said.

After researching the issue, Buchanan and her classmates wrote letters to the school board and superintendent, reached out to the media, prepared a petition and placed posters around their school, drawing attention to the issue. Over the course of the project, Buchanan figured out what her goal was.

“I would like to see everyone feeling safer,” Buchanan said. “Like, not being, seeing women walking down the street, like I can see them carrying like keys in their hands as they are walking by themselves I’m like, they should be able to feel safe walking to their car, to the grocery store, at night without feeling afraid, that’s what I’d like to see.”

Buchanan and her class competed against nine other Project Citizen teams at Gruening, presenting their research and solutions to a panel of three judges. The top five scoring classes, including Buchanan’s, advanced to the state championships in Fairbanks.

From there, one team will win a chance to compete at the national championship. But Project Citizen has become about more than winning to these students. Allison Hiseley, Buchanan’s classmate, was less concerned with the winning of the competition.

“We don’t have to get first place in competition, I just hope it gets the attention it needs,” , Hiseley said. “This is a scary topic that really needs to be focused on throughout our community, our state.”

For Buchanan, the issue is now personal.

“As two teenage girls living in Alaska and having such a topic that really revolves around – like – us, kind of, it really makes me determined to help not just only teenage girls, but elderly women, young girls, all girls, and men, everyone, who wants to to feel safe here, should be able to.”

While Project Citizen is a useful teaching tool for middle school history teachers, it also appears to be launching the careers of future activists and politicians.