It’s one thing for students to learn about civics in a classroom, another to organize clothes drives, plant community gardens or register voters.
California’s latest history and social studies guidelines were designed in part to encourage schools to give students real-world experience in civic engagement.
California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who helped craft the History-Social Science Framework for the state’s public schools, points to successful programs at Rio Americano High School and Natomas Pacific Pathways Preparatory School as examples of what educators should emulate.
At Rio Americano High School, for instance, senior projects in the school’s Civitas program this year included efforts to help undocumented teenagers apply to college, a program to feed the hungry, a study on assisted suicide and the development of a teacher workshop on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
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The projects culminate four years of civics study that includes 100 hours of community service and 75 hours of internships.
“Civics to me is just an abbreviated form of leadership training,” said Cantil-Sakauye, a 1977 McClatchy High School graduate. “If you know how the world around you works and how decisions are made, and you work together collaboratively, you know how to become a change agent.”
The California Board of Education passed the expansive new History-Social Science Framework in July calling for knowledge of the history, principles and foundations of American democracy including the Constitution. Most of the attention was focused on a controversial battle over which minority groups should be acknowledged, as well as standards related to LGBT history.
But a lesser-known piece encourages teachers to use participation in school and community projects, and the political process, to teach about politics and society.
“To live it, if you will. That is really what we want,” said Sacramento County schools chief David Gordon, who is the co-chairman of the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning. “We don’t want them to memorize a bunch of facts, we want them to know what it means. It’s about far more than voting. It’s about learning to give back and making a contribution.”
At Rio Americano High School, seniors Asha Armstrong and Nolan Lease registered voters and held mock elections at the school prior to the November election. Lease also interned at the Sacramento County Voter Registration and Elections Office, while Armstrong interned for the California secretary of state’s office and worked on the re-election campaign for Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove.
“Influencing other people is really important,” Armstrong said. “Every year, more and more kids are interested in politics, so we should try to get all interested in registering to vote.”
The two shared their work with juniors in Linda Reed’s “Philosophy of Political Thought” class in October. “We want everyone to know that voting is important,” Lease said.
Rio Americano High won the state’s Civic Learning Award of Excellence in 2014. The award, sponsored by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and Cantil-Sakauye, asks schools to describe a project in which there has been collaboration, critical thinking and a plan to implement a goal, Cantil-Sakauye said. The students then work with their communities to see the goal realized.
Natomas Pacific Pathways Preparatory School won the top honor this year for its community service, senior projects and law-themed curriculum, said Principal Melissa Mori.
At the Natomas school, often called NP3, all high school students organize a community service project. Those range from voter registration drives and book drives to programs on bike safety and research on the re-gentrification of neighborhoods in San Francisco.
Students in NP3 elementary and middle schools take part in the Leader in Me program, which has students at a young age run assemblies, serve as campus greeters and pick up garbage on campus, Mori said.
NP3 teacher Rob Hagarty is hoping that by emphasizing civic engagement, schools will reverse voter apathy among young people.
“Getting them back into that mindset again, I think that is really what the framework is about,” said Hagarty, a member of the state task force.
Sacramento County schools are known for their commitment to civic education, Cantil-Sakauye said.
Six Sacramento County school districts have passed resolutions to develop civic literacy in all students. The Sacramento County Office of Education has established the Action Civics Initiative, a cross-curricular team of educators focused on increasing civic engagement in schools across the county.
Cantil-Sakauye said she made elevating civics education a priority after she was sworn in as chief justice in 2011.
“I have two daughters,” she said in an October interview. “These issues are what they will grow up with. They will grow up with knowing the issue of Black Lives Matter. They will grow up with the concept of police force. They will grow up with the loss of courtesy, respect and integrity in the political election scheme. This is stuff they will grow up with.
“So, if we teach people like my children how to channel it and how to be critical thinkers and how they can also work with people of different opinions toward solutions ... that will be better for all of us down the road.”
Courts and the chief justice have been very influential in moving the civics-based framework forward, Gordon said. “The courts are seeing the impact on their work because they need people who are knowledgeable to be jurors. They have a huge stake on this.”