Teaching Youth Civic Engagement

A lot of people are talking about civic engagement these days. Suddenly there is a popular terminology that captures all the energy for service learning, youth voting, community volunteering and other forms of establishing strong connections within and among a broader community. Suddenly there is a way to embody the best intentions and inherent benefits of democracy into a simple catch phrase. Suddenly…

That energy has constantly informed my work for at least the last seven years. After serving three terms in AmeriCorps I decided that I wanted to combine the energy I had for civic engagement with the commitment I felt towards youth work, and thus began my quest with Freechild. When I started delving deeply within schools I discovered similar opportunities to enrich civic engagement within schools, and consequently I started SoundOut. That is how I became a practitioner of the notion that as members of a democracy we need to strengthen community connections and enriching the roles of young people throughout society.

I believe that same notion imbues schools and community youth programs with a purpose, a goal that is much more relevant, burning and impressive than simplistic youth development. So it is with great enthusiasm that I finally found an exciting and (I think) riveting study from CIRCLE that came out last fall. In it authors Hugh McIntosh, Sheldon H. Berman of Jefferson County Public Schools (Massachusetts) and James Youniss of the Catholic University of America analyze mid-project outcomes from what they called a “Comprehensive High School Civic Engagement Intervention in Hudson, MA.” While the title is clearly not intended to jump out at you in the school library, it definitely tells us that there is a level of intentionality and depth inherent in this piece that has been largely absent from a lot of school-oriented studies in the last dozen years.

They explore the effects of two particular civic development efforts initiated at Hudson High School in September 2003. The first, called “clustering,” focuses on bringing together students in small (150+) student groups around central career/interest areas in order to bond them tighter as co-members of the same learning experience, as well as enrich collaboration among school staff. The second effort is schoolwide governance, which was derived from the idea of establishing “just communities” in schools. The report uses these two major change areas, along with several other significant changes, to frame the research.

The report identifies large school meetings, low participation and the breadth of student leadership as major issues in their evaluation. Major areas of change among the schools’ twelfth grades over the four year study period include:

  • Likelihood of giving money to a political candidate or cause
  • Likelihood of having worked or going to work in a political campaign
  • Likelihood of having participated in any community service (voluntary/required) during past year
  • Likelihood of having participated or probably will participate in a lawful demonstration

Students reported that their political knowledge and community concern had changed significantly, as well.

This is an exciting study because it adds another measure that enriches the case for student voice in schools beyond the simplistic reading/writing/math analysis. To learn more about the study check out the CIRCLE website.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

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