We’re proud to announce that the David Mathews Center for Civic Life recently completed a series of three Students’ Institute workshops at Westlawn Middle School in Tuscaloosa.

This is the first time we’ve taken Students Institute to another school community outside of Montevallo, and we look forward to visiting Westlawn again. We genuinely enjoyed the experience of getting to know these middle school students, and we were very impressed with their ideas. Students’ Institute is one of the signature programs of the Mathews Center. In accordance with a growing body of research, we believe that young people need increased civic knowledge, but also that they will only develop civic skills through real opportunities to apply that knowledge. Through a series of intensive workshops and field trips, Students’ Institute provides opportunities for students of all ages to deepen their understanding of civic engagement and to build skills for effective, sustainable decision-making within their community.

At Westlawn, we worked with a group of approximately 55 6th, 7th and 8th grade students selected by their teachers. This Students’ Institute series was convened by Ms. Giles-Brown, the school principal; Emma Bertolaet, who is an instructor at University of Alabama’s New College; and Jamie Cicatiello, guardian of a Westlawn student. Ms. Bertolaet brought students from her Cooperation & Conflict course to serve as additional adult facilitators. It was a great asset to have the support of these administrators and community members, as we tailored our program to the Westlawn school community.

Over a three week period, the middle school students practiced decision-making and ranking activities, identified what assets and challenges they saw at their school, and began to develop project ideas based on those observations. We divided the group into squads of 8 students, making sure that each squad represented 6th, 7th and 8th grade students. Then, as project ideas emerged, we directed students into squads based on shared interests, while maintaining different ages in each one.

At our third and final workshop, the students’ projects were presented to Ms. Giles-Brown and several teachers. Each squad had been interviewed intensively on their peers’ top eight project ideas. They were rotated around the room, while the squad facilitators asked open-ended questions relating to student opinions, the perceived need of the project, and willingness to participate. This activity increased students’ awareness of their peers’ ideas, and ensured that each final presentation was based on student input. The final project ideas included proposals for group tutoring sessions, a mentoring program utilizing college students from UA, community service activities, and a school fun day. Some students wanted to create a more active student council and incorporate more college and career preparations in school activities, and one of the most popular ideas involved improving teacher-student communication.

We thank each individual who contributed their time, energy, and support to this Students’ Institute series, and we hope to work with these students again! It was a real pleasure as well as a learning experience, as we bring this program to more communities in Alabama.

If you would like to bring Students’ Institute to your community, please contact Cristin Foster at cfoster@mathewscenter.org.