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What Difference Can a Middle School Student Make in the World?

At Changemaker School Prospect Sierra in El Cerrito, CA, educators and students alike are pushing the boundaries of the answer to this question.

By Laura White

In May 2012, Laura graduated from Tulane University with a B.A. in Political Economy. While at Tulane, Laura brought her Youth Venture project, Swim 4 Success, to New Orleans, LA, and was a founding member of Tulane’s Ashoka U Changemaker Campus team. As a member of the Empathy Initiative, Laura manages the Changemaker Schools network, a group of schools that have given empathy as much priority as math and literacy. Laura is passionate about changemaker education, empathy, and transforming early childhood education.

August 5, 2013

What could an economic and community development program in Colombia, a documentary about street children in Brazil, and a district-wide recycling program have in common? They were all started by Prospect Sierra alumni who started their journeys as changemakers while they were students at the school. Their founders were also recognized by the Alumni Achievement Awards, a program that Prospect Sierra middle school students started and manage every year. Indeed, middle school is when many Prospect Sierra students are able to act on their social and emotional competence and knowledge of community problems to develop initiatives including the Alumni Achievement Awards.

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Prospect Sierra educators provide a number of opportunities to help students make positive social change when they identify community problems and develop solutions. For example, the middle school students on the student council founded the Inspiration in Action program to fund the ideas of Prospect Sierra students to create systemic positive change in their community. Funded projects have included an incentive program to drop off students at the school early to reduce the dangerous traffic congestion that develops in the morning as well as a cupcake-baking workshop to combine a fun activity with an awareness-raising (and fundraising) program about the lack of access to education in Sudan.

In addition to these resources for changemaking developed by students, staff at Prospect Sierra’s middle school have built changemaking into the curriculum. Middle school students can launch their own electives, which have included an elective on This P.S. Life: an initiative in which students discussed in groups what it is like to have a particular shared experience (i.e. being multi- or bi-racial or having LGBQT parents). They then present critical information about having that experience to the rest of the school. There is also a robust service-learning program at the middle school level, which challenges students to broaden the community of people for which they feel empathy. In sixth grade, the service-learning program includes traveling to a dozen farms throughout the Bay Area to understand social justice issues related to food and farm workers and then designing solutions to real issues faced by local small farmers. By eighth grade, students are learning to conduct oral histories and record the oral histories of community members who lived during WWII in their own books.

With the combination of an empathic school culture and many curricular opportunities for students to put empathy into action, Prospect Sierra is a model for middle school changemaker education across the country and the world.