College of Education > News and Publications > News: Jan. - March 2011 > The Salad Girls: Students of PDS Alum Learn the Strength of Civic Action

The Salad Girls: Students of PDS Alum Learn the Strength of Civic Action

Three fifth-grade girls lobbied for changes to the school's salads. Not only did their effort succeed, but they drew the praise of Pennsylvania's Secretary of Health.

salad_girls.jpgby Joe Savrock (February 2011)

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Anika, Olivia, and Sana were frustrated about the pre-made salads in their elementary school cafeteria. The salads had plenty of nutritional value, to be sure. But some of the ingredients, particularly the ham and the cheese, were problematic for these students.

The three girls, fifth-graders last year at Park Forest Elementary School in State College, Pa., could not eat the salads for various health, religious, and cultural reasons. Unfortunately, the cafeteria workers were not permitted to prepare the dishes in any specialized way.

The girls didn’t want to take “no” for an answer. Looking for options, they turned to their classroom teacher, Jennifer Cody ’07 E K Ed. While meeting with the girls, Cody recognized that their predicament could be turned into a positive situation. It appeared to be a great opportunity for the girls to practice an orderly democratic and civic process.

In fact, the girls’ initiative was grounded in one of the school’s visions. “Park Forest is a school where student voice is valued,” says Cody. “The students learn throughout their tenure here that what they have to say matters, and it matters a lot! We work to help students learn to use their voice in order to facilitate change.”

She adds, “I believe my classroom is a child-centered classroom where students are free to share their thinking, debate their opinions based on evidence and observations, and work for change. Students are very aware when they are immersed in an environment where they are supported and can take risks.”

The girls’ meeting with their teacher was productive; it set into motion a months-long campaign involving plenty of work and persuasion.

Other classmates joined the cause, and Cody guided her students through the steps of changing the cafeteria process. “We met many times to discuss the situation and the girls’ concerns, as well as their thoughts regarding the possible ways to work on the problem,” she says. “The girls were all very passionate and ready to insist on change.”

With Cody’s support, the girls went to the next level. “They met with our principal, Donnan Stoicovy, regarding ways to navigate the different levels of administration to whom the girls would need to make presentations,” says Cody. “Ms. Stoicovy also worked with the girls regarding the surveying process.”

The girls prepared a PowerPoint presentation outlining the problem and then addressed the entire student body. Afterwards, they went class to class to survey the school’s 450 students, then collected and analyzed the survey’s data. The girls found a general consensus: in the opinion of the student body, a variety of salad options should, indeed, be on the cafeteria menu. Armed with their findings, the girls met with school district administrators.

In the end, the girls’ persistence had paid off: The cafeteria expanded its salad offerings.

Perhaps more importantly, the girls had practiced the basics of civics, research, and public presentation. They affectionately became known throughout the school as the “Salad Girls.”

The project culminated this past September, after the Salad Girls had moved on to middle school. The girls were invited back to Park Forest to take part in a forum on improving school lunches. The forum was highlighted by a school visit by then-Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Everett James and Penn State President Graham Spanier, who recognized the girls for their efforts.

“Especially in the NCLB-era where teachers can be bogged down in test prep, I hope teachers see this story as a model for centering curricula around students’ interests and concerns,” says Stephanie Serriere, Penn State assistant professor of social studies education and women's studies.

Serriere and Cody collaborated with Dana Mitra, Penn State associate professor of educational theory and policy, to co-author an article describing the Salad Girls’ activism and civic work. The article, titled “Young Citizens Take Action for Better School Lunches,” was the cover story of a recent issue of the academic journal Social Studies and the Young Learner. It was part of the journal’s special issue on the topic of children as advocates and activists. The magazine is a publication of the National Council for the Social Studies.

In the journal article, Serriere, Mitra, and Cody relate how the Salad Girls followed the five-step Project Citizen, an approach designed by the Center for Civic Education. The five steps involve identifying a problem, researching the problem, examining solutions, proposing a solution, and assessing the experience.

“When we talk about student voice efforts, most research looks at middle school students and older,” notes Mitra, whose research interests include school reform, student voice, school-community collaboration, and youth development. “The Salad Girls offer a chance to explore what student voice opportunities can look like for elementary-aged children. We observed that the Salad Girls particularly developed a strong sense of ‘civic efficacy’—a belief that they could make a difference in the world.”

“Like any good inquiry or civic action project, these empowered young women used the five steps without even knowing it,” says Serriere. “The girls entered middle school this year with a sense of empowerment and corresponding skill set to make change.”

Serriere states, “It might be common for kids to think things ‘just aren’t fair,’ but what was uncommon here is that the girls went through a process of collecting data and presenting it to the right people—adults and kids—to get things changed. The girls’ public speaking abilities, even their PowerPoint presentations, improved as they went from the principal to two levels of cafeteria personnel, to their entire school body twice, and finally to local parents, President Spanier and Secretary James.”

Serriere also serves as an instructor in the Penn State/State College Professional Development School (PDS) initiative. The PDS involves preservice teachers and faculty members in Penn State’s College of Education, as well as veteran teachers and administrators of State College Area School District. The PDS allows preservice teachers to intern in the State College schools, working with veteran teachers who in turn benefit in their own professional development by assuming roles as mentors.

Cody participated as a PDS preservice teaching intern four years ago while a Penn State undergraduate student. “I began my college career as a returning adult college student with the notion that asking questions, and working to answer those questions, is the key to learning,” she says.

Cody ties her successful classroom leadership at Park Forest Elementary to her PDS experience. “The PDS helped me further realize the importance of asking questions,” she states. “Students of the PDS are constantly challenged to inquire into their practices as both a student and a teacher in order to learn to be better at both. The PDS highlights the importance of student-centered learning environments and opportunities. Because I already had some of my own basic ideas, I was able to easily merge what I was learning in the PDS with my own ideas.”

Cody continues as a member of the PDS, serving now as a mentor and hosting a new generation of PDS interns in her classroom.