A woman with a lanyard stands in a classroom speaking to multiple students sitting at desks.
Charlottesville City Schools has banned cell phone usage in the classroom. Credit: Credit: Zack Wajsgras, The Daily Progress

Most fifth- and sixth-graders don’t know who makes the financial decisions that affect their daily lives at school, beyond the fact that the decision-makers are all grownups.

But this year, students at Charlottesville’s Walker Upper Elementary School have full authority over a $6,000 project to create a healthier school environment.

The new participatory budgeting initiative is the brainchild of Walker parent Serena Gruia, founder of the Creative Might design studio. Gruia also is a member of Charlottesville’s PLACE Design Task Force.

“We don’t know what the students will come up with,” Gruia said. “It’s a point of tension, but that’s part of the process.”

Participatory budgeting (PB) processes allow members of a community to directly decide how to spend part of a public budget. The concept has caught on in multiple U.S. cities, including New York and Chicago.

The city of Charlottesville will pilot a PB process in 2019 with $100,000. The City Council is slated to discuss the planning process for the pilot at its meeting Monday.

“These kids could be a model for the adults [in Charlottesville],” Gruia said.

Walker launched its PB initiative this week with $6,000 donated by CFA Institute. The school is still seeking donations to expand the initiative.

Gruia and five other volunteers from the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education & Human Development will facilitate PB workshops for the school’s sixth-graders this semester.

Fifteen sixth-grade classrooms each will present a proposal at a school-wide expo in December. At the expo, fifth- and sixth-grade students — along with their families and school employees — will vote on one or two projects to be implemented later in the year.

The students’ project proposals must address at least one of three themes: outdoor play, healthy food options, or the development of a school garden.

Walker is the only Charlottesville school that does not have a garden. The local nonprofit City Schoolyard Garden currently manages plots of vegetables at the city’s six elementary schools, Buford Middle School and Charlottesville High School.

Gruia and other members of the PB project team will encourage students’ proposals to incorporate the school’s new FarmBot, a robot that can be programmed with open-source software to plant seeds and tend to crops.

Other American public schools have supported PB initiatives, but Walker’s may be unique in how it allows a full grade of students to work on project proposals during school time, Gruia said.

“We decided to involve the full school, and not just a delegation of students,” said Adam Hastings, Walker’s principal. “In our community, we too often have a small delegation of people doing the decision-making, and reaping the benefits from that.”

Alex Piedra, a social studies teacher at Walker, said the PB workshops align closely with Virginia’s Standards of Learning for citizenship.

“The students will learn to be good listeners, even when people have views that are different than their own. And they will discuss and vote on those ideas,” Piedra said. “It’s a very civic-minded project.”

On Friday morning, Gruia led a “problem discovery” session for about 20 students in Piedra’s classroom.

Students gathered in small groups and discussed some of the trials and tribulations of middle school: waiting for late buses, being bored or lonely at recess, and lugging around heavy backpacks.

Eventually, conversation shifted to one of their project themes: the quantity and quality of food in the school’s cafeteria.

“When I’m late to lunch, everyone in front of me gets the pizza and I get a big piece of cabbage, mixed with something gross,” one student said.

Sixth-grader Jasmine McGhee said the Walker cafeteria sometimes doesn’t offer enough food choices for students who choose not to eat pork or other meats.

“I know I’m not the only one with this problem,” McGhee said.

McGhee said she enjoyed the brainstorming stage of the PB process, and that she hopes to bring some of her ideas to a Walker PTO meeting.

“It’s kind of cool that [the adults] actually care about our opinions, that they are hearing them and taking them into consideration,” McGhee said.

While $6,000 may seem like a lot of money to a sixth-grader, it is just a small fraction of the cost of a new playground or a full year of revamped lunches.

“Now, students will expect to be part of school decisions,” Hastings said. “When we give students agency, how do we honor that?”

Recently, after all the students had gone home, Hastings visited some of the sixth-grade classrooms and read the lists of problems they had generated.

“It’s tough to see that the kids have some things that they don’t like about school, but it’s great that they want to be part of the solutions,” Hastings said. “Our children have a strong voice.”


Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.