story by Taylor Wheeler | photos by Orran Scruggs & Liberty Learning Foundation
It’s 10:30am on Election Day 2016, and Liberty’s Legacy president and founder Patti Yancey is saying something profound and also incredibly timely considering the day: “The one common denominator we have as Americans is citizenship.” No matter our differences, she says, “we the people were given that right and that responsibility.” Now Liberty’s Legacy wants to ensure that today’s youth understand what that citizenship truly means with their Super Citizen program, currently underway in Dothan City Schools.
The Super Citizen program began in response to the realization that students across Alabama were leaving the educational system under-prepared to execute their duties as American citizens. Patti was charged by businessman and philanthropist Davis Lee with finding out why. Davis funded the research that launched Liberty’s Legacy. For eighteen months, Patti and her advisory board of educators, business and community leaders went out in surrounding communities researching this question: why aren’t our kids ready for life after graduation?
“We found out that clearly the foundation of civics, what it means to be a citizen, is missing,” says Patti. They also discovered that character education, financial literacy, and career development weren’t able to compete with classroom time devoted to reading, writing, math and science. “These were things that I received both at home and in the classroom,” Patti says of her childhood civics education. But now, “there are only so many hours in the day,” says Patti—and civics just didn’t fit in.
“We talked with college professors who were telling us they were getting the kids with the GPAs,” says Patti, “but by their sophomore year, they had spent all their money, had no life skills, could not work together or even look you in face when they shake hands.” Teaching students all the different aspects of being a good citizen—in addition to math, reading and science—became a clear objective. If Patti and her advisory board were going to succeed in getting kids life and career ready, they knew they would need to start younger, before they got to college or high school. And so the idea of the Super Citizen program began.
Two years of research yielded a program that could go into the schools and teach elementary school children a curriculum built with the three pillars of character education, financial stability and career development held upright by the foundation of civics. The program consisted of a fun and exciting kickoff event, ten weeks of classroom lessons and a graduation ceremony to wrap up. A $250,000 grant from Alabama Power Company to help them spread the Super Citizen program across Alabama—this year the number of students participating in the program has soared to 45,000. A junior high program was piloted last year, and future plans include a program for high school students.
The Super Citizen program begins with an exciting kickoff assembly event at the school. “You can’t teach inspiration,” says Patti, but a big kickoff rally complete with Lady Libby Liberty herself can. Portrayed by a former Broadway actress, the lady in green steps “right off the pedestal” for Alabama kids who may never have the chance to see Lady Liberty in person, says Patti.
Ready-to-teach lesson plans provide the bulk of the program. “The teacher has all the info she needs for the lessons,” says Patti. Built “like a recipe with steps,” and supported with video, the lessons touch on financial literacy, a history of American immigration, important American figures, symbols and monuments, the military and character education. “Every one of our lessons correlates back to what teachers have to teach,” says Patti, so learning about civics also ties back to math, science and reading.
Each classroom is provided with a kit that includes all materials needed for lessons, plus Statue of Liberty crowns, American flags, workbooks, DVDs and even a very special model of the Statue of Liberty—at the heart of which includes actual material from the Statue of Liberty made available for educational purposes after the 1980 refurbishing.
One of the main components of the Super Citizen program is finding a true community Super Citizen to award with their very own statue. “They basically apply the lessons they learn [about citizenship]to the people in their communities,” Patti explains. “Who do they see as a hero?” Each class has nominations for their Super Citizen candidates and then votes to decide whom to honor with their very own statue. Firemen, policemen, city officials, community leaders, educators—“adults doing what they do every day,” says Patti, “but in the eyes of a child, they’re seen as someone doing great things.”
Additionally, students must raise money to earn the $35 to purchase their hero’s prize. Students have fundraisers, make items to sell at a marketplace, bus tables, sell tickets to wear a hat to school and more. “If you want it, you have to earn it,” says Patti, “and when you earn it, you then give it away.” Although some corporate sponsors help struggling schools with the statue fundraising, students still must complete tasks like folding miniature American flags while learning about proper flag etiquette to earn their statue money.
The Super Citizen program graduation is the culmination of the program, where students receive certificates of completion, take the Super Citizen’s oath and also honor their classroom’s Super Citizen by giving speeches on what makes them a hero and presenting them with their very own piece of history. “Hopefully, the graduation is embedding in their memory the things that they’ve learned over the program,” says Patti.
Since launching, Liberty’s Legacy has seen great success in the Super Citizen program schools. In a Eufaula school, they tracked the success of the program—discipline reports had decreased, and 95% of Super Citizen graduates could recall lessons from the program. Students at schools have started their own non-profits to help fund their Super Citizen statues, and it has created young entrepreneurs as well. One student made wooden drink coasters to sell for his classroom’s statue fundraiser. “His teacher told us he came back afterwards and asked did they know where to go to get a business license,” says Patti.
Dothan City Schools students are participating in this program for the 2016-17 school year, and one can only hope that the lessons they learn will be carried with them long after they leave the school system. “At the end of day, we all want young people to be good, contributing citizens,” says Patti.