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In a classroom down a long hallway of Centaurus High School in Lafayette, sounds of students singing “Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, dear Liz…” echo off the walls.

Public Achievement part of CU course

Centaurus High School students march from Boulder to Lafayette along with CU supporters and other community members as part of a Public Achievement project addressing the Dream Act on April 2. The eight-mile addition to the annual Cesar Chavez Celebration in Lafayette was the high school students' initiative.(CU Independent file photo/Molly Maher)

In a classroom down a long hallway of Centaurus High School in Lafayette, sounds of students singing “Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, dear Liz…” echo off the walls.

It is April 9, the day before Public Achievement coach Liz Bury’s 21st birthday, and the high school students and fellow coaches in the program are taking a break from work to wish her well.

Bury has already completed the Public Achievement course at the University of Colorado— INVS 2919— but she says she will continue to work with the group of Centaurus High School students, “her kids,” while in Boulder, a trend directors of the program say is common.

“I’m actually not in the class this semester, I just volunteer with the group,” said Bury, a junior sociology major. “I care a lot about them and the project, so I’ll be working with them next year, too.”

Public Achievement is the practicum side of one service learning course, Renewing Democracy in Communities and Schools, available to CU students. It is an INVST Community Studies class funded and organized through the Institute for Ethical and Civic Engagement (IECE).

The class meets once a week for an hour and a half and discusses the state of education in America.

The course helps CU students to develop learning strategies and plans for their practical application at Centaurus, where they work for are another hour and a half each week, said Enna Kladstrup, the Outreach Coordinator of IECE and Coach Coordinator for Public Achievement.

The Centaurus students they work with come from the “I Have a Dream” foundation, which, in this area, usually means low-income students, sometimes undocumented children of immigrants. They also work with AVID, which is a voluntary track for students trying to go to college, but who are normally the first in their family to do so, Kladstrup said.

There is also a connection with middle school “dreamers” at a north Boulder community center.

IECE supports Public Achievement as the CU leg of Access Colorado, which works “to teach middle schoolers, high schoolers how to be civically engaged,” IECE Director Peter Simons said. “[It’s] also to impact retention, success in school and access to higher education.”

CU offers Public Achievement to fulfill its role as one of the 12 sites statewide working to achieve Access goals, Simons said. Public Achievement is not a model unique to CU. Developed in 1990 at the University of Minnesota, Public Achievement is used at universities in at least five different states and in 22 countries, according to their website.

Public Achievement has been a part of CU for three years, and was brought to the campus by its current instructor Elaina Verveer.

Verveer had been administering a Public Achievement program in Boulder County for seven years, including a similar course at Naropa University.

With the support of their coaches, the Centaurus students develop a project each semester that addresses an issue they see in their communities. For students whose realities may not be stable because of these issues, the projects offer a productive outlet, Kladstrup said.

“It actually gives them power over the situations that are affecting their lives, and it’s so easy for students to feel powerless,” Kladstrup said. “It’s not just changing society, it’s changing their life.

Verveer and Kladstrup said that this benefit for the high school students comes largely from the supportive, unique relationships they form with their CU coaches. But the benefit is not mutually exclusive, as coaches learn much from the students as well.

For Brittney Barickman, a senior biology major who is getting a teaching certificate and is a coach in the AVID classroom, this experience has rounded her as a teacher.

“As a teacher there’s so many things we’re held accountable for, but youth empowerment isn’t always part of it,” Barickman said.

Working with her students has shown her how much a relationship can help them, and Barickman says she believes that there is a place for Public Achievement in every classroom.

No matter how the class relates to a CU coach’s original major or future goals, Verveer and Kladstrup said that it consistently helps shape the paths they take in their future.

“For a lot of the CU students, it’s their first time they’ve even been asked to engage in anything beyond themselves,” Verveer said. “Now, this is their life. This is their calling.”

Contact CU Independent Copy Editor Molly Maher at

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