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Elementary pupils become advocates at Penny Harvest Leadership Academy

Event is part of a partnership between USC and the elementary schools that surround the university’s campuses

One by one, the four teams took turns addressing childhood cancer, foster care, homelessness and saving animals — serious, thoughtful work, especially for elementary-age presenters.

But that’s one of the goals of the USC Penny Harvest program, the result of a growing partnership among elementary schools in the neighborhoods surrounding the USC University Park and Health Sciences campuses; the USC Dornsife, Viterbi, Marshall and Annenberg schools; and the Office of Community Partnerships for the Health Sciences Campus.

Penny Harvest features multiple components: a “Wheel of Caring” project in which the elementary schools identify issues they care about; the collection of pennies; granting the funds collected to an agency that addresses a cause identified by the students; and service with that agency to connect students to those affected by and involved in that cause.

Our school has always been active with social justice issues, but this is something that doesn’t come from the top. It comes more from the bottom-up.

Rocio Flores

“It’s given more of a voice to our kids,” said Rocio Flores of Resurrection Catholic School. “Our school has always been active with social justice issues, but this is something that doesn’t come from the top. It comes more from the bottom-up.”

Beyond academic

While Penny Harvest was designed to supplement the core curriculum, the impact of the yearlong program goes beyond academic. As pupils from Resurrection, Griffin Elementary, Sheridan Street Elementary and Lou Dantzler Preparatory Charter School converged at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center, they passed USC students bicycling to class or studying with friends. In just a few years, many of the Penny Harvest participants hope to be in the undergrads’ place.

For now, they’re in training, and during the Spring Leadership Academy on March 10, they got to work. With help from students in Professor Ann Crigler’s Political Science 420 class, the youngsters prepared to advocate for an issue they had selected.

The Penny Harvest program allows all who participate an opportunity to learn civic skills, to see life from different perspectives and particularly to see youth as capable and contributing citizens.

Ann Crigler

“The Penny Harvest program allows all who participate an opportunity to learn civic skills, to see life from different perspectives and particularly to see youth as capable and contributing citizens,” says Crigler, who brought Penny Harvest to Southern California along with USC’s associate senior vice president for civic engagement, Craig Keys.

Students begin to shine

As each team of youngsters took its turn, the individual qualities of students began to shine: confidence in public speaking, respect, being a good listener, teamwork and showing encouragement for others. Yet each had different approaches, as taught by the USC political science students. Rather than solely focusing on the allocation of grant monies, the elementary students included elements that could make local elected officials think twice.

In one example, students took on the issue of sea lions dying from starvation. They identified the problem of overfishing, using visual aids and statistical evidence to make their point and ending with a proposed policy solution to impose restrictions on fishing. Their rationale: “If you were a sea lion, would you want your pup to have food? Well, if I were a sea lion, I would want my pup to have food so they don’t die.”

The students were challenged to think about how to allocate their funds. What criteria would they use? Should the funds be distributed to all causes or just one? How to decide? In the end, they voted to allocate funds support childhood cancer and foster care — and applauded their own work.

“Penny Harvest has created more of an awareness and energy around community problems and challenges, mostly with empowering our students to feel a part of the solution,” Flores said. “Students have learned that large community issues start with one — and that one person, one school, one community have the power to influence and affect these community struggles in profound ways.”

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