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Activating Citizens: Sixth-Grade Capstone Projects

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    Ben Smith

The Mission

On a September morning, twenty-nine sixth-grade students peppered a panel of representatives from local youth and recreation organizations with questions: “Why do adults always think youth and teenagers are trouble-makers?” “What do you think kids can do to make a difference in our community?” When the panel presentation concluded, the group headed back to their school. As they passed by a small park, they were drawn to skateboarders and bikers performing tricks on ramps, rails, and platforms. The students gathered around to watch, captivated by the action. Then came the big announcement: “Skateboarding is the topic for your year-long expedition!” 

Skateboarding? How can skateboarding provide enough substance to justify an entire year’s curriculum? Jim Maddison, president of the Friends of the Roc City Skate Park, explained, “The task of the Genesee Community Charter School sixth-grade class for the 2011-2012 academic year is to explore, inventory, and strategize next steps for developing a skate park system in the City of Rochester; specifically neighborhood-level skate parks in residential areas. The Friends of the Roc City Skate Park would like to know 1) the priority neighborhoods in the city, 2) why these neighborhoods are the priority locations, and 3) what public land is available in these neighborhoods to begin creating this system of skate parks.”

A Capstone Year

At Genesee Community Charter School each year, the sixth-grade class tackles a local “hot topic” as a year-long overarching theme for their capstone project. It serves as an important culmination of what students have learned during their years in elementary school by providing them an opportunity to apply what they have learned in a dynamic way. 

We recognize that sixth-grade is a pivotal year for young people. An educational program that is characterized by purpose, challenge, social causes, and collaborative work promotes
academic engagement in our sixth-graders at a time when these budding adolescents could become self-absorbed, apathetic, and disconnected. 

It is GCCS’s goal to help students develop into contributing, positive community activists as they continue to refine and extend their academic and social skills. Genesee students are well prepared to take the lead in investigating and offering solutions to community problems because of their rich background in local history and activism.

Rigorous Criteria

Not every local issue lends itself to a year-long expedition. In order to meet state standards and provide consistent structure to the sixth-grade year, Genesee staff developed the following criteria for consideration when selecting the curriculum topic:

The topic must have ancient roots that would allow students to learn about global ancient civilizations.We meet New York’s social studies standards when the topic of investigation can be connected to ancient cultures. For example, students investigating the canal re-watering proposal researched the development of world canals. The class preparing recommendations for a museum exhibit studied the role of disease in human history. This year’s class studied the development of the wheel and the role of youth in ancient Rome and Greece.

The topic must have local importance and contemporary global connections.
In addition to developing expertise about local issues, we want students to understand that city residents all over the world face similar problems. As students researched the development of canals, they also investigated contemporary canal revitalization throughout Europe and Asia. This year’s class is learning about efforts made by cities around the world to reduce youth crime and lower childhood obesity rates.

The topic must have strong science content. We meet science standards by identifying topics with strong connections to the natural or physical sciences. Students researching colony collapse disorder became experts on bee anatomy, bee and plant life cycles, and the delicate balance of the food chain. In studying public art, students researched the physical and chemical properties of materials used for creating long-lasting works of art. This year’s class is focusing on the physics of skateboarding, the materials science of skateboards and protective gear, and human anatomy.

The topic must have a legitimate, authentic audience in the community with possibilities for a tangible final product. We have developed relationships with city officials and a variety
of local downtown development organizations to help us identify projects or issues that might benefit from student input. Ideally, as with this year’s class, a stakeholder will charge the students with a task and request a specific outcome. This can be the publishing of a white paper, the crafting of models, or the presentation of findings. Regardless of the mode, the outcome is high-stakes, high-quality work for a real-world audience.

The topic must allow possibilities for students to research how other cities have successfully addressed similar issues. It is important to us that our students learn how to look elsewhere for potential solutions to community problems and then to synthesize their findings into recommendations for Rochester. Funded through a combination of school budgeting, fund-raising, and family contributions, we typically divide the class into four small groups, then send each group to a city that has models of successful solutions. For example, the class that researched canal revitalization traveled to cities with thriving downtown waterways to meet with mayors, city planners, residents, tourists, and business owners. In another case, students traveled to museums with world-class health exhibits to work with museum presidents, exhibit designers, and museum educators in order to
research their recommendations to Rochester’s museum. 

Three Expeditions

Each year, we divide the sixth-grade’s year-long topic into three expeditions. The first expedition examines the ancient roots of the topic. The second investigates the natural and physical science of the topic. During the third expedition, students travel to their
research cities to conduct interviews, observations, and surveys. They investigate the structure of local government to find out how decisions are made in communities. Then they prepare their recommendations and present them to the appropriate stakeholders.

This year’s sixth-grade is currently preparing to travel to four cities with world-class skate parks, neighborhood-level skate parks, and strong youth programming – Phoenix, Sacramento, San Diego, and Louisville. They will meet with city officials, skate park
designers, community agency workers, and residents. In May, they’ll present their findings at a skate park symposium they’re hosting for representatives from Roc City Skate Park, youth agencies, recreation organizations, the city and county, and other interested parties.

And what will next year’s “hot topic” be? We don’t know yet, but we know the students will rise to the challenge of an ambitious undertaking, make strong connections with local
community stakeholders, and learn from experience that quality work can make a difference.

Lisa Wing is School Leader at Genesee Community Charter School in Rochester, NY.
She has been in education for 30 years and can be reached at


Download the full PDF of the Spring 2012 Signpost here.