Published: Nov. 3, 2016

CU Boulder Public Achievement coaches at Centaurus High School, where they work with students to address social justice issues.

Over 100 middle and high school students from Boulder County joined 35 CU Boulder undergraduates on campus October 21, to tour the campus and participate in workshops with community and campus organizations to address public issues impacting their communities.

The visiting seventh-to-twelfth graders, from Angevine Middle School and Centaurus High School in Lafayette, are all part of CU Boulder’s Public Achievement (PA) program, a youth-led civic engagement program that promotes student voice and transformative change for individuals and communities.

Charla Agnoletti, Public Achievement Program Director, explains that CU Boulder undergraduates serve as PA coaches working with K-12 students in Boulder and Lafayette.

“CU students from across academic disciplines dedicate their time to teaching and coaching the younger students around issues of public impact in their communities. For example, some of the issues being explored by students this year include: immigration, poverty and homelessness, human trafficking, sexual assault, and improving conditions for high school students of color in AP and IB classes,” says Agnoletti.

At Centaurus, students in the AVID program partner with CU Boulder PA mentors to research and take action on such issues. The AVID/Public Achievement partnership also serves as a pathway for Centaurus students to attend college at CU Boulder. In fact, nearly a dozen current PA students, all undergraduates at CU Boulder, were part of the AVID & Public Achievement programs in Lafayette in junior high or high school; now, they are coaching middle and high school students as mentors in the same schools and communities where they are from.

Jaideep (“J.D.”) Mangat is a senior at CU Boulder, majoring in Operations and Information Management. Mangat attended Centaurus High School and grew up in Lafayette. The son of highly educated immigrants from India whose degrees did not hold their value in the United States, Mangat received early admission to CU Boulder during his junior year of high school. “My parents came here with nothing and worked hard to provide for us. That motivated my sister and me to go to college and do our very best,” he explains.

As a high school student at Centaurus, Mangat was part of the AVID program, where he was coached by CU Boulder PA students in a group that focused on addressing gun violence in their community. “At first we were sort of troublemakers in high school,” Mangat recalls. “But when it came to PA, we gained respect for our PA coaches. They really established a relationship with us, they were college students so we thought they were cool. We became closer as a group and each week we got something more and more significant done,” he explains.

Now a CU Boulder senior, Mangat is coaching a group of students at his former high school in Lafayette. The group he coaches is working to create better conditions for students of color to enroll in Advanced Placement (AP) and/or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes at Centaurus, which are rigorous classes that colleges and universities like to see on applicant transcripts.

Enihs Medrano, a sophomore at Centaurus and a member of the PA group that Mangat coaches, explains that she sees kids separated into two groups at her school: kids who are encouraged to take advantage of opportunities, “and then other kids who don’t get that kind of support,” she says.

“We want to make it so that minority kids can take better classes, too. There is a situation of feeling uncomfortable, students of color feel like we don’t belong there,” she explains. “My parents didn’t go to college, so it’s harder for me to know what’s important to do to get into college,” Medrano says.

The group is focused both on educating ethnic minority students at Centaurus about the advantages of taking AP and IB classes, and also on improving the school culture to encourage more underrepresented students to challenge themselves in college-track courses and to make the courses themselves more welcoming to students from all backgrounds.

“We want counselors to reach out to more students of color, and we also want to inform students and parents. We really want students to feel more comfortable taking these classes,” says Ximena Silva, a Centaurus junior who is also part of this PA issue group.

JD and his group at Centaurus

Jaideep (“J.D.”) Mangat (lower left) is a senior at CU Boulder, majoring in Operations and Information Management. He coaches this group of Centaurus High School students through his involvement in CU's Public Achievement program.

"What I’ve learned as a PA coach is that if you tell students they can do what they want but they need to get something done, and you let them decide what to focus their efforts on, they’ll focus twice as hard and give their whole effort and have fun while they’re doing it,” says Mangat. 

Mangat underscores how PA coaches and their Centaurus student groups decide which issues to focus on. “We try to do a project that impacts the community in Lafayette because this is the community we are from, and it’s a place we want to make a better. And so as PA coaches, we push our students, and the students like that we’re relatable.”

“We’re coaches now and they see that we went to Centaurus and we can relate to them because we’re from the same community. We see the same issues that they do and they know we’ve been through the same things,” he says.

Alexis Gonzales, a CU freshman who did not attend Centaurus, is also a PA coach working with Centaurus high school students. Her group is working on addressing immigration issues that impact the perceptions and treatment immigrants in Lafayette and beyond.

One Centaurus student in the group that Gonzales coaches, sophomore Karina Adame, explains how the group is forming plans to educate their community about the impacts of negative stereotypes on immigrants and their families.

“We want others to know how immigrants feel in a society where people don’t accept them and think they’re criminals. We don’t think we’re criminals or ‘aliens’. We don’t identify with these stereotypes. I am from Mexico but I’m not a criminal,” Adame says. 

“We don’t get to choose who we were when we were born. It’s not our fault that our parents chose to come here. So we are trying to help change the perception of immigrants in our community,” she relates.

CU Boulder students from across academic disciplines are invited to join the Public Achievement program, which is part of CU Engage, the Center for Community-Based Learning and Research. In Spring 2017, students can take the PA course INVS/EDUC 2919 Renewing Democracy in Communities & Schools, which includes a practicum component where students coach and work with K-12 student groups in various Boulder County Schools. This course also fulfills a Human & Diversity Core Requirement and counts towards both the Leadership Studies Minor and Education Minor.

“Not all teachers know the full potential that youth have,” reflects Mangat. “They assume that kids can’t do what they’re truly capable of. What I’ve learned as a PA coach is that if you tell students they can do what they want but they need to get something done, and you let them decide what to focus their efforts on, they’ll focus twice as hard and give their whole effort and have fun while they’re doing it,” he explains.

“When they’re into it, they’re good at it. And there’s no stopping them.”