Gracias San Antonio: Civic Engagement for Young Children

Tower of the Americas City Exploration

We are proud to present this guest post by Adriana Becerra, Founder and Director of JOY Holistic Education, about Gracias San Antonio, a civic engagement program for young children.

Gracias San Antonio is a civic engagement program for young children. At JOY, a question that always guides our purpose and vision is, “What do children really need to learn in schools?” As a holistic school, we believe that focusing on developing 21st century skills such as critical thinking, emotional wellbeing, collaboration and creativity are fundamental in the education of children. However, in order to create a better world we must never forget about social values that go beyond working well with others. We must focus on building knowledge about our city and its residents, developing the skills necessary to actively participate in our community and cultivating dispositions and a strong commitment to create a better and kinder place for everybody to live in. 

Education for Civic Engagement

Historically schools have focused on fostering civic education, however recently it has been relegated to upper grade levels and textbooks. This is unfortunate because during the first years of life children develop their personality along with their views and dispositions about the world around them. Children at a young age can learn and value their role in the community. Some civic concepts can be very abstract for young children to grasp unless they get to live them and experience themselves. To address this gap, it was important to adopt Gracias San Antonio as one of JOY’s innovative paths of learning; the idea is to mold abstract civic concepts into meaningful experiences for young children. 

Gracias can be replicated at any school or even families can facilitate some of these ideas with other school families. In this article we will share with you the elements of our year-long program and how we incorporate other fun learning experiences such as creating authentic art. I hope that this inspires you to break the barriers of your school walls and use the city as your classroom!

Gracias San Antonio election tablet civic engagement

Gracias San Antonio Elections

It all starts with children voting to support a local non-profit organization during the year.  The organization elected receives funds raised in our art exhibit at the end of the school year. Our Gracias San Antonio election day is held usually on the same day as real elections. While the nation elects a President, a congress, and so on, our preschoolers elect an organization to support. This coming year our election will be on November 8, 2022, the day of the midterm election. 

The idea is that preschoolers cast ballots similar to how adults do in general elections. Children create an ID and voter registration to participate. They wait in line and cast their vote using an iPad. After they cast their vote, children get a sticker that says “I voted today ” and go home wearing it proudly—also encouraging their parents to participate in local, state, or national elections. 

Gracias San Antonio election civic engagement

Prior to Gracias San Antonio elections, our children get to learn about the organizations in the ballot during our “Campaign week”. It is interesting and fun to see how our preschool elections mirror real elections. While learning about the different options, children feel attracted to certain logos or colors in the websites. It is important to engage our children in discussions about the message and purpose of each organization so they don’t get distracted with the marketing. However I have to tell you, if puppies are on the ballot, no other organization has a chance. Children are passionate about helping puppies, it is innately tied to what they believe is important. There are other beautiful stories behind why children vote for certain organizations: “Because my grandfather was a soldier, too,” “Because all kids should have a home,” or “Because they are cute”—referring to the puppies, of course. 

Siclovia Madison Square Park JOY Holistic Education City Explorations yoga civic engagement

City Explorations and Volunteerism

Throughout the year, families participate in City Explorations and fall in love with San Antonio. JOY facilitates school-wide City Explorations once a month, and teachers facilitate classroom City Explorations when aligned to a project they are studying in the class. During City Explorations we visit museums, parks, and city landmarks. We visit H-E-B, a bakery, or a farmers market to do groceries together. Families can also engage in volunteer experiences such as visiting a nursing home or pickup up trash in a park. 

We think it’s important is to choose places or events that are free and make sure that some of our City Explorations are to places not commonly visited by our families. Our city has so much to offer! It is surprising to find out that there are many places families had never been to even when they lived in San Antonio their entire lives. 

During City Explorations, school staff are welcome and encouraged to invite their own family. This way we promote a strong and authentic school community. There is not a strict agenda but there is freedom for children to guide the learning; we never know what will catch their attention. Together, staff and families create a simple outing into a rich learning experience about the city. 

Gracias San Antonio city explorations confluence park

Authentic Art Inspired by the City

After City Explorations, children are engaged in authentic art experiences. They are encouraged to create art pieces based on what they love about San Antonio. These art pieces reflect the city from a young child perspective. One time, a child drew cats and titled it Brackenridge Park because that was exactly what he remembered about the park—black cats everywhere. 

Sometimes local artists or parents come to the school and teach us different art techniques. We explore aquarelas, oil painting, acrylic, pastels. We learn about creating sculptures or converting old furniture into art pieces. However we always encourage children to create authentic art as a form of self-expression and not an activity to follow adult directions. It is always about the process and about the story expressed in every art piece. Some art pieces are created individually and some pieces are created in groups of children working collaboratively. At JOY, families also have the opportunity to create an art piece together to auction it in the art exhibit. 

Gracias San Antonio Creating Family Art Piece JOY Holistic Education

Gracias San Antonio Art Exhibit

We culminate our program showcasing and auctioning the art pieces in a local art gallery. This is a day to celebrate a beautiful year of connecting and falling in love with our community.  On this day, children proudly wear a tag that says “featured artist” so attendants can recognize them in the crowd. There are no words to describe the faces of our children when they see their art pieces displayed so beautifully. They proudly engage with attendees as they show them their art and tell them their stories about the city. Children are celebrated as real artists and their art pieces will raise funds to give back to their community. 

Attendants participate in the online auction bidding for their favorite piece. There is a lot of excitement in the room as some of the favorite art pieces go from one bidder to another in minutes. Who would be the lucky one who wins the art piece at the end of the event? In our last art exhibit in May 2022, our elected organization—Animal Care Services—attended and helped us close the exhibit by sharing with the audience how the proceeds will help many puppies in San Antonio who do not have a home. 

Gracias San Antonio Art Exhibit

Gracias San Antonio is a powerful path of learning. Through a year of meaningful and fun experiences, young children and their families explore San Antonio together. By participating in elections children learn that their voice holds power. By creating art and raising funds to support a local organization, children realize they have an impact at a young age. More importantly, by creating a strong link between the city and our families, children fall in love with their community and grow equipped and committed to care and improve it. 

How Gracias San Antonio Started 

Gracias San Antonio started in 2012 when Adriana was an Assistant Director at Pre-K 4 SA. One of the teachers in the Pre-K 4 SA South Center, Eric Smith, invited her to join his class on a Saturday to enjoy Brackenridge Park. Adriana used to live in Southtown at that time so she rode her bike that morning to the park. What she saw was inspiring so she wanted to capture the powerful experience. Eric and Adriana put together a committee formed by Belinda Gonzalez, Dulce Lara, Sarah Heinrich, Jessica Ambris, and Dr. Lesley Balido McClellan; the family outing was transformed into a year-long civic engagement program that concludes with students giving back to the community through art. Adriana believed that as Pre-K 4 SA was funded by local taxes the least we could do is to appreciate the commitment of the residents of San Antonio and give back to our community. 

When Adriana opened JOY Holistic Education, she knew that Gracias San Antonio needed to be one of the paths of learning. She believes Gracias is an amazing program that can be replicated in every school that wants to create a strong connection between families and the city. Through consulting services, she helps schools adopt this program and make it their own aligned to their specific school culture and possibilities.  

Charter Moms Chats

Watch Adriana Becerra, Founder and Director of JOY Holistic Education, speak with Inga Cotton on Charter Moms Chats on October 26, 2022 at 4:00 PM Central live on Facebook and YouTube.

Adriana Becerra is the founder of JOY Holistic Education. She began her career fifteen years ago as a Bilingual Teacher in Head Start at San Antonio ISD. Then she was part of the leadership team who opened Pre-K 4 SA and was instrumental in making it one of the best early childhood programs in Texas. In her last role before JOY, she supported school districts in Texas in their journey to strengthen leadership and transform their talent development systems as a consultant at The Holdsworth Center. In every role she has played, she has been passionate about challenging the status quo and reshaping the focus of education.

Throughout her career, she envisioned JOY, but it was not until she became a mom that she felt the urgency to materialize it. Inspired by what could be, she brought JOY to the world in 2020 during the pandemic. JOY represents everything she has learned and wishes for her sons Joaquín and Mariano, for her inner child and teacher, and for every person: A holistic education in which people feel safe and loved for who they are, so they treasure joy and grow equipped and committed to create a better world.

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