First and second grade elementary school students are not just learning the basics these days, they are also learning city planning, sustainability, critical thinking and how to work in a group for a project, a task often even difficult for college students who may bicker with each other trying to figure out who is going to do what. And so now a group of elementary school children at University Elementary School at La Fiesta, are learning these skills early on with a unique city planning project in conjunction with the Rohnert Park City Manager, Darrin Jenkins.
Three teachers at University Elementary, Jessica Bender, Ryan Kurada and Kristin Ballard are bringing the future city model project to their first and second grade classes in the hope that the projects will inspire creativity, leadership and plant the seed of the importance of community involvement and improvement.
The group of passionate teachers also believe that as future residents, kids’ voices and ideas regarding community improvement deserve to be heard and that the kids deserve a seat at the table alongside the adults.
“The project stems from the idea that we need to look at children as the future citizens of our community. So much of our society I think looks at children as if we need to take care of them and they’re needy and yes that is partly true, but we are looking at children as they have such great ideas worthy of sharing, especially on topics such as community and improvement,” Kurada said, “They experience daily life just like we do, why not get their ideas?”
Kurada’s colleague Jessica Bender, also said the project fit well with their curriculum since they are already learning about community jobs and the elements of a good community.
“It made sense. If we are teaching them that, why not get their input on what could make the city better. If you are going to teach something, you don’t want it to end there, (instead) they are thinking into the future,” Bender said.
With the deadline approaching for Rohnert Park to revamp the city’s general plan and their spring town hall meeting scheduled for next week, input from residents of all ages on what the city can do to improve transportation, housing and other municipal services is greatly needed. So as a way to launch the project, Kurada invited Jenkins to visit the classroom with a project proposal letter challenging students to produce their own 3-D model of an “improved and more fun place to live,” and introduced them to the concept of a general plan.
Jenkins says when he was presenting at the school kids were already excited and coming up with ideas.
“They may have a different way of looking at the world and different and creative ideas that we might not have thought about. Out of the box ideas can come from any age and it is good to get ideas for our general plan from all ages,” Jenkins said.
To help students brainstorm ideas for the start of their group project models, teachers prompted students with questions such as, “What is a community,” “What do communities/cities need” and “What could make them better.”
According to Kurada and his colleagues, so far there are some very unique and intuitive ideas on the table.
Some ideas range from an apartment that has its own water filtration system, to electric cars, energy efficient color paned windows and to one of the most selfless ideas of adding a car to the SMART train that could provide shelter and food for the homeless.
One of Kurada’s first grade students is focusing his group’s project on natural spaces and says he wants a park space for both kids and pets.
“It’s a community forest for kids and pets and it is a peaceful place for picnics. There is a garden and a pond for salmon,” said Shawn Agerter, who showed off a blueprint drawing of his model.
When asked if he was enjoying the project so far, Agerter said he was a little terrified at first, but is now having fun. Another first-grade student, Sophia Angel, said she enjoys the project because she likes the teamwork.
Kurada, Bender and Ballad say that their students have shown great passion for this project and at the end of the day, it’s all they want to work on. Ballard mused how one student in her class is being incredibly precise, using the big scissors to make perfect cuts and carefully mixing two different colors of glitter glue on their model.
However, they also say that it was initially a bit difficult guiding the kids’ ideas and helping them determine if a roller coaster would really be effective for city improvement.
“It is a broad topic… so it was hard organizing our own vision for how we would like to proceed and narrowing the kids’ interest into one specific improvement was definitely hard. They think so big!” Bender said.
To that end, it was also rewarding seeing them use their critical thinking skills and to not be afraid to think up big ideas and collaborate with each other.
“I would have to say seeing them bounce ideas off each other and learning how to not only share their ideas but getting inspired by each other and building on those, (has been the most rewarding,” Bender explained.
What’s also exciting for students, is the chance to share their ideas at the May 8 Rohnert Park City Council Meeting at 5 p.m., where several students representing the three classes will be presenting their ideas to city council members. In addition to the city council presentation, University Elementary will hold a project exhibit on May 15 at 5:30 p.m. to show off student’s future city models. The exhibit will be open to the community and all Rohnert Park-Cotati residents are encouraged to come and view the ideas from the bright minds of the future citizens.
As Kurada says, it is important to show the kids’ ideas respect and to show the kids that their input matters and that it can make a difference in the community.
“They are real and raw… and they are citizens of now,” Kurada said.