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Kindergarteners as Apprentice Citizens

Prestigious Spencer Foundation grant supports civic engagement study of kindergarteners in the U.S. and Ghana.




USF Professors Michael and Ilene Berson on a visit to the teaching practice facilities and schools in Cape Coast, Ghana with UCC faculty Kafui Etsey and Clement Agezo, their fellow PIs on the Spencer Foundation Grant.   



By Barbara Melendez

      USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Sept. 23, 2013) – As a new school year settles in, a unique study could help make a difference in how eager and bright-eyed kindergartners in the United States and in Ghana become good citizens – not only in their classrooms but as they grow into adulthood as well.


USF and The University of Cape Coast are beginning a study of children's civic engagement with the support of a prestigious Spencer Foundation grant. Researchers at the two universities are investigating the ways kindergarteners learn about what it means to be a good citizen.


This study comes at a time when research has shown increasingly large-scale disengagement of young people from civic life, which does not bode well for any nation that hopes to maintain a democratic form of government.


“Although public schools in the United States and Ghana were conceived in part to provide civic education and are uniquely positioned to strengthen civic culture, both nations have faced challenges in fulfilling this mission,” according to the co-principal investigators for the grant, USF Early Childhood Professor Ilene Bersonand Social Science Education Professor Michael Berson, a senior fellow in The Florida Joint Center for Citizenship. The two are faculty members in the university's College of Education.


Focusing on low-income students in the U.S. and Ghana, “the study will address how existing early childhood curriculum and pedagogy reflect expectations of citizens within different national contexts – in their behavior and in their attitudes,” said Michael Berson.


USF Professor and Principal Investigator Ilene Berson with University of Cape Coast co-PIs Kafui Etsey and Clement Agezo explore Ghanaian curricular materials while collaborating on the development of the Spencer Foundation grant.

In this regard, the central research questions address children's classroom preparation to become participatory citizens; parental and teacher expectations; and how the kindergartners conceive of themselves and others as citizens.


The researchers will analyze children's literature and classroom materials and conduct interviews.


The grant proposal, titled Young Children as Apprentice Citizens: A Comparative Case Study Analysis of the Role of Literacy in Empowering Civic Engagement in Ghana and the United States, calls for using a video-based methodology that captures the voices and perspectives of 5-year-olds, their adult caregivers and teachers in their unique local contexts.


"Social participation and civic engagement help young learners develop a sense of identity and become connected to others within the larger community,” Ilene Berson said.


Similarities and Differences


So far, whether in Cape Coast, Ghana or Tampa, the two researchers'' experiences are similar in many respects and differ in others.


In each country they are greeted “with warm welcomes and smiling faces of energetic learners clad in their school uniforms. Children in both settings exude a sense of curiosity and wonder,” she said.


Learning experiences and civics themes, however, reflect the two nations' diverse histories and socio-cultural contexts, she explained.


“Individualistic and materialistic values are ubiquitous throughout stories read by American children; however, Ghanaians have traditionally situated the individual within the community, promoting collective participation, respect for traditions and family obedience.”


When the study concludes, students in both countries stand to benefit.


“We will use the resulting findings to develop teacher preparation strategies that may engage young children in using reading and writing as part of civic engagement while they acquire and practice skill sets as apprentice citizens,” Michael Berson said.


Colleagues from the University of Cape Coast are partnering with the USF research team. They include co-PIs Senior Lecturers Kafui Etsey, (Department of Basic Education), Clement Agezo (department head, Department of Basic Education), Kankam Boadu, (former head of the Department of Arts and Social Sciences), and Lecturer Alex Kwao (Department of Basic Education).


In Tampa, the researchers will collaborate with Hillsborough County Public Schools administrators, Daryl W. Saunders, supervisor of elementary social studies/generalist area IV, and Lisa Black, kindergarten supervisor.


This collaboration with the University of Cape Coast developed with the support of three university-funded initiatives: the University of South Florida Global Academic Partners program, University of South Florida Ghana Scholars Program, and seed funding from a University of South Florida College of Education Faculty Collaborative Research Grant.


The final grant propelled the project forward.


"We appreciate the generous support of The Spencer Foundation in helping to forge this latest collaboration with University of Cape Coast,” said Provost Ralph Wilcox. “This promises to create exciting new opportunities for the exchange of both people and ideas while addressing an issue of importance to both countries."


USF’s Ghana Scholars Program has hosted faculty members from the University of Cape Coast and has research teams at work on other projects in Ghana.

Michael Berson added, “We were honored to receive this grant because The Spencer Foundation is one of the most prestigious grant funding organizations in the United States. And we're thankful to Professor Joseph Ghartey Ampiah in Ghana for all his help in fostering the collaboration.”


Strong Ties Nothing New


A close relationship with Ghana is nothing new for USF.


USF's Ghana Scholars Program has hosted faculty members from the University of Cape Coast and has reasearch teams at work on other projects in Ghana.

The university has research teams at work on other projects in Ghana as well: looking into Early Childhood Education, (Principal Investigators Ilene R. Berson and Roger Brindley); the Economic Costs and Benefits of Malaria Prevention, (PI Gabriel Picone); Teaching and Research on Women and Gender in Sub-Saharan Africa and the African Diaspora, (PI Cheryl Rodriguez); and Subtropical-Tropical Cooperative Program Management of Coastal Urban Watersheds, (PIs Thomas Crisman and Susan Bell).


"The University of South Florida has long valued its academic and cultural ties with Ghana," said Wilcox. "Our Ghana Scholars Program, recently recognized by the Institute of International Education for excellence and innovation in international partnership efforts, is a centerpiece of the university's global engagement initiatives, and a growing number of our Gilman Scholars are now choosing Ghana as their preferred study abroad destination.”


The Ghana Scholars Programhas hosted faculty members from the University of Cape Coast and the University of Ghana who are working on their dissertations in the Departments of Anthropology, Africana Studies, Economics, Geography and Global Health.


“The future of this remarkable country lies in the successful development of its education system. This presents enormous challenges and opportunities,” said USF Associate Vice President for Global Academic Programs Roger Brindley.Ghana's education system is growing rapidly, especially in the high school and university-age populations where they sense the urgency of having a good education. Therein lies the power of this research; it is helping to prepare students from an early age to bring a stronger focus to their future as citizens as they move toward higher education. We're excited that our students and faculty will collaborate on a project that will extend the mutual expertise of both university partners.”


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563