It was an idea that, at the time, sounded as simple as it was revolutionary: Provide an education that served the public.
This meant more than public education in the traditional sense — operating schools to educate the general population. Instead, says Carl Glickman, professor emeritus of the University of Georgia College of Education, students should be educated not only to serve themselves but also to serve the general public.
Glickman's idea was to create "active learning environments" that connected classroom lessons to the students' community. As a result, he says, students learn a subject while applying their knowledge to issues in their family or the larger community around them. For example, it could be a science lesson about treating water, a mathematics problem involving census data or a language arts assignment documenting a family's history—no matter the subject, the students gain a deeper understanding by applying it to the world around them.
"Public education is an education for the public. Its primary role is to educate for active and knowledgeable citizens, and this type of active, participatory learning must be ongoing in our public schools where 90 percent of our children reside," says Glickman. "My entire career, from teacher, school principal, and University faculty member, has been to assist schools in this endeavor, engaging students in learning that's real to them so they understand learning isn't something simply done to meet a requirement of an assignment or a test, but is done to give the student power, value and new worlds of opportunities."
This idea has now sparked the Carl and Sara Glickman Family Foundation Challenge Grants for Project-Based Learning. This recently launched endowment funds an annual award of up to $14,000, renewable for up to three years, to a College of Education faculty member who initiates a collaboration with a public school or schools with a majority of students in poverty. This collaboration should feature project-based learning methods that apply academic learning to a community setting.
The Glickmans recently established the fund with a gift of $330,000 to the UGA College of Education. In this way, Glickman says, he and Sara can fund an initiative that's near and dear to their hearts.
Several years ago the couple funded a similar, smaller endowment program for teachers in the Clarke County School District. Sara is a retired Clarke County elementary and middle school teacher.
Carl developed this College of Education partnership with public schools in the mid-1980s. The dean of the College at the time provided him with a small grant for three years, which allowed him time to work with two local schools.
"At that time we began working with Oglethorpe County High School and Fowler Drive Elementary, and both schools were excited about the opportunity to change the way learning went on in the classrooms by involving students, teachers, parents and administrators in democratic decision-making processes to improve and evaluate the progress of improved school-wide instruction," he says.
After three years, the initiative turned into a formal effort that included schools from across the state, called the Georgia League of Professional Schools. It involved dozens of faculty members, and the results of the project-based learning programs were validated by the U.S. Department of Education, won state and national awards and also received millions in grants and donations. Participating schools showed higher student achievement and lower dropout rates. And that small initial grant turned into a College-wide and nationwide movement that included partnerships with other universities and educational organizations.
While the Georgia League of Professional Schools has since disbanded, the legacy lives on. Today, experiential-based learning is sought at all levels of education, including the University of Georgia, which will require all undergraduate students to take part in experiential learning opportunities starting in fall 2016.
If this endowment can propel further innovations in this area, Glickman says, that would be satisfying. "I'm very grateful that I had my career at the University of Georgia, which had been so supportive and encouraging of our efforts that began with a small grant to a single faculty member to test out a significant idea about public education," he said. "Sara and I want other faculty to have the same opportunity."
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