Equitable civic empowerment in schools
Addressing the civic debt in democratic education
By Jennifer Elemen, Olivia Santillan and Laura Guajardo | January | February 2021
It is crucial for schools to become more democratic in their functioning in regards to increasing inclusiveness, belongingness and empowerment of students. How can we promote equity, social justice and civic action for all students?
Local Educational Agencies may now award the State Seal of Civic Engagement, based on California Education Code Section 5147, to students who demonstrate excellence in civic education and participation as well as exhibit an understanding of the United States Constitution, the California Constitution and the democratic system of government. California Education Code Section 51470 states: “It is the intent of the Legislature to establish a State Seal of Civic Engagement to encourage, and create pathways for, pupils in elementary and secondary schools to become civically engaged in democratic governmental institutions at the local, state, and national levels.” This will prepare them for college and career readiness, in addition to promoting civic readiness, global citizenship and social change.
Civic engagement may become part of the California School Dashboard in an attempt to revise the College/Career Readiness Indicator by incorporating the State Seal. This provides a need for school districts to operationalize civic learning opportunities by collecting and monitoring both qualitative and quantitative data in an effort to achieve the goal of civic engagement for all students. To support civic engagement, including through distance learning, the California Department of Education has updated the CDE Resources to Support Civic Engagement website. LEAs will be able to implement the criteria based on their own local contexts with access and equity for all students in all grade levels, from pre-kindergarten through grade twelve.
The State Seal of Civic Engagement Recommended Criteria (California Department of Education, 2020) are:
  • Be engaged in academic work in a productive way.
  • Demonstrate a competent understanding of U.S. and California constitutions, functions and governance of local governments, tribal government structures and organizations, the role of the citizen in a constitutional democracy, and democratic principles, concepts and processes.
  • Participate in one or more informed civic engagement project(s) that address real-world problems and require students to identify and inquire into civic needs or problems, consider varied responses, take action and reflect on efforts.
  • Demonstrate civic knowledge, skills and dispositions through self-reflection.
  • Exhibit character traits that reflect civic-mindedness and a commitment to positively impact the classroom, school, community and/or society.
These criteria are available in an expanded format, along with grade-span guidance and examples of civic engagement projects for PK-12 students on the CDE “Examples and Resources for Civic Engagement Projects” web page (California Department of Education, 2020). Additionally, recommendations from stakeholder groups were elicited, including the Power of Democracy Steering Committee and Promoting Authentic College, Career and Civic Readiness Assessment Systems. They outlined eight promising practices as well as cross discipline instructional practices in a draft roadmap proposal. This roadmap builds upon the “six proven practices in civic learning” (California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning, 2014; Education Commission of the States, 2014) and the four guiding principles for integrating civic learning (PACCCRAS, 2020). The proposed roadmap may inform district, school, classroom and community civic engagement for local implementation in tandem with stakeholder design for civic empowerment. The emphasis on collaboration across discipline instructional practices is key and we also suggest expanding across institutional practices.
Youth participation in meaning-making through civic empowerment with adult leaders serves multiple purposes.
Concrete action steps are needed to achieve the goal of civic empowerment for all students. One way is through the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) process and Multi-Tiered System of Supports. They both provide formal and informal power structures which can inform school leadership and locate data sources to operationalize and monitor progress. We must elevate student voice and youth agency in these places. LEAs are encouraged to create their own policies regarding implementation of the State Seal criteria for PK-12th grade in partnership with their communities, stakeholders, colleges and universities, and feeder elementary and middle schools. “LEAs that enable early and ongoing opportunities for all students to gain civic knowledge, practice and apply civic skills, develop digital citizenship skills, realize civic responsibilities, and cultivate relationships with their communities will help to prepare civically aware, skilled, and engaged citizens. Throughout the process, students are encouraged to consider interdisciplinary projects and issues that extend over time” (California Department of Education, 2020). We need to plan and collaborate strategically across disciplines and systems to effect change in a way that will be transformative for all in the community.
School leaders should consider the need to re-envision the working relationships between adults and youth to achieve equitable civic empowerment. This is a necessary adaptation to cultural, social and technological shifts. Youth participation in meaning-making through civic empowerment with adult leaders serves multiple purposes. The inclusion of youth into the dialogue on public education is needed not only to share perspectives, but also for the shared community dialogue and societal transformation, co-creating solutions that better meet stakeholders’ and students’ needs. Although there are examples of distributed leadership, we have yet to see enough of the kind of changes that are needed to transform school leadership culture and structures to adequately elevate student voice and civic empowerment.
For most school districts, there is a lack of language in LCAPs’ mentioning of “civic” learning, engagement, empowerment or education, student advisory councils and student voice beyond limited surveys and focus groups. We need to address the policies that inhibit youth participation in school leadership and civic empowerment (Elemen, 2015; Mitra, Serriere, & Kirshner, 2014; United Nations, 1989). Questions to consider are: How did school leaders invite and include student voices to inform their local Learning Continuity and Attendance Plans and how do they do this regularly in their LCAP and School Plan for Student Achievement processes?
Beyond the “civic opportunity gap,” (Kahne & Middaugh, 2009) a focus on addressing the “civic debt in democratic education” is needed (Lo, 2019). Schools and society owe Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer+ (LGBTQ+) individuals and community, immigrant and refugee students, linguistically diverse and emergent bilingual students, students with disabilities, foster youth and students living in poverty access to power in school leadership to successfully cultivate critical civic literacy, in addition to challenging inequitable and oppressive practices, structures, and systems. Efforts should include these aspects of identity to empower the historically marginalized, disenfranchised and oppressed, countering the dominant narratives, building a vision and future of equity and justice for all.
The Monterey County Office of Education and the Santa Clara County Office of Education with their Civic Learning Partnerships, the Region Five History-Social Science Community of Practice and Content, Literacy, Inquiry, and Citizenship (CLIC) Project (tinyurl.com/MCOEFrameworks), provide the following recommendations to support the expansion of equitable civic learning opportunities from the county offices of education with the communities they serve:
  • Expand access to inclusive, equitable, and high-quality opportunities for civic education, engagement, and leadership to ensure students representing the rich diversity of our counties have access and are able to participate meaningfully.
  • Partner with districts, teachers, administrators/instructional leaders, and paraprofessionals to continue to strengthen communication and provide quality support to promote inclusive, equitable, and high-quality civic education and opportunities for civic engagement and leadership to students. Provide district leadership connections to the LCAP, MTSS, English Learner Roadmap, State Seal of Civic Engagement Roadmap, and C3 Readiness. Expand professional learning opportunities. Recognize and celebrate excellence with Civic Learning Awards, State Seal of Civic Engagement, and regional events.
  • Partner with parents/caregivers, families, community members, community-based organizations, and government agencies to raise awareness and expand opportunities; support and expand parent engagement, expand outreach for partnerships, explore ways to minimize barriers; and partner within and across divisions to create internal capacity to support and advance the work.
  • Explore effective and equitable systems.
Authentic civic engagement opportunities should be available to all students, including students who may be perceived as disengaged (Cohen, Kahne, Marshall, Anderson, Brower, & Knight, 2018). “Students who engage in inquiry- and project-based learning, including civic learning experiences, have opportunities to read and hear content texts within real-world contexts that enhance students’ engagement by piquing their interests and connecting with their own lives” (ELA/ELD Framework, California Department of Education, 2015, p. 88).
The Monterey County Board of Education adopted the Support for Civic Learning: College, Career and Civic Life Resolution in 2016 that encourages resources dedicated to civic learning opportunities with goals to achieve equity, diversity and inclusion, to demonstrate and promote active citizenship and to teach students civic skills needed for the 21st century workplace. Furthermore, the court and community day schools in both Santa Clara and Monterey counties provide opportunities for their students to engage in taking informed action and interacting with civic leaders, such as attorneys and judges from the county Superior Courts through annual events such as Law Day. Santa Clara County launched its participation in the National Day of Racial Healing in 2019, while simultaneously launching the Women’s Equality 2020 campaign. Sunol and Gateway Community Day Schools planned multiple opportunities for students to participate, and social workers, teachers and administrators collaborated with other county offices to support their plans. Sunol Community Day School created a girls’ group that met weekly and focused on the importance of using one’s voice by integrating short lessons on social movements, such as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement.
A multi-pronged, multi-level approach is needed to transform schools into the democratic and equitable spaces we need them to become.
It was great to see members of the group step up and speak up while motivating others and becoming the leaders we always saw in them. One of my favorite moments was when one youth empowered another to take the opportunity and speak with their school board members and superintendent during a site visit. This young lady was brave enough to share her unique story and advocate for youth just like her. She inspired them so much that she was able to continue with a school placement that was previously not an option. (Brown, 2020).
Teaching and leadership practices that help to increase civic participation and student achievement include: discussion of current events, service learning, consideration of people’s diverse values, who could be affected by the outcome of deliberation or problem-solving, ideas of different people discussed, student involvement in decision-making, effective committee structure for decision-making, effective communication facilitation, and an appropriate level of autonomy in decision-making (Elemen, 2015). Examples for implementation include: Student Advisory Councils, Positive Peer Culture programs, Near-Peer programs, Youth Participatory Action Research programs, Youth Civic Engagement councils, focus groups, site teams, leadership groups and internship programs with local government and community-based organizations.
Youth must be invited to the table in groups representative of the student body and community population in addition to the traditional student council, student government and school site council representatives. Student voice should be included in decision-making at the school site level with School Plan for Student Achievement and at the district level with the LCAP. The Civic Learning Compendium for the California History-Social Science Framework (Constitutional Rights Foundation & Los Angeles County Office of Education, 2017) also provides guidance for K-12 classrooms to integrate civic action in classrooms.
At the district leadership level, to comprehensively and effectively center youth voices in the LCAP process, the Center for Cities+Schools at UC Berkeley (2016) provided the following recommendations: 1) Process engagement innovations at the state and local level by providing an academic context for LCAP through the creation of a curriculum that provides a platform for youth participation in the LCAP process during the school day and capitalizes on opportunities for synergy between community-based and grassroots organizations as well as LEAs; 2) Translate engagement into action transparency by centering on youth voice, ideas, and concerns to strategically integrate them into the LCAP spending formula for districts and use non-adultist language to make visible how youth voice has been implemented; 3) Measure outcomes of LCAP investments and increase documentation of emerging best practices impact by sharing knowledge of best practices across LEAs and advocacy groups to deepen the quality and breadth of student engagement, and develop metrics to measure how LCAP investments impact student achievement. Additionally, guidance has been provided on “Promoting History-Social Science in your District’s LCAP and Accountability Dashboard Report” (Herczog & Contreras, 2017), which includes supporting the development of civic competencies aligned to state and local priorities and the History-Social Science Framework (California Department of Education, 2017).
Several organizations and networks have emerged to elevate youth voice and agency, especially to address civic empowerment and anti-racism. For example, Move School Forward has put forth the following demands: 1) students must have a voice that shapes their education; 2) a just response to COVID-19 must prioritize comprehensive support for marginalized students; 3) students’ basic needs must be completely met; 4) the public sector should support schools in closing the digital divide; and 5) schools must cultivate a positive and nurturing climate and culture (Move School Forward, 2020).
Similarly, My School Votes, affiliated with When We All Vote and Rock the Vote, advocates for voter education campaigns that build civic leadership capacity in the schools they serve, beyond the traditional voter registration drives. A multi-pronged, multi-level approach is needed to transform schools into the democratic and equitable spaces we need them to become. For example, the Monterey County Office of Education has convened a Monterey County Youth Civic Leadership Forum and African American Student Leadership Forum, aiming to invite youth and adult partnerships for school community and civic leadership. In online meetings, voluntary participants collaborate on the “We Count, We Rise” Census 2020, voter and civic education campaigns, and equity advancement in partnership with school districts, community organizations, and youth councils.
Additionally, Assembly Bill 331 proposes to add the completion of a one-semester Ethnic Studies course to the high school graduation requirements in the 2029–2030 school year (public) and 2025–2026 school year (charter). Besides providing the metaphorical mirrors, windows, and doors to youth learning about identity, students will learn about cultural diversity, social stratification, inequality, the historical roots of systemic racism, civic action and social justice to empower collective change. Students’ research and project-based learning could integrate ethnic studies with civics, Social and Emotional Learning, science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics (STEAM), language and literacy. More of these promising practices can be integrated into schools designing college, career, and civic readiness with youth civic empowerment.
As we aim to center critical civic literacy with equity in education, “this demand for schools to be sources of civic preparation requires system-wide soul-searching about what literacy means at a time of civic turmoil and amidst continued systemic inequities in multiple areas of public life for members of minoritized communities. These tasks must be undertaken at multiple levels (e.g., within classrooms, community spaces, and teacher preparation programs), and—as we focus on in this piece—in policy conversations” (Garcia & Mirra, 2019). We look forward to continuing this conversation as a community moving toward equitable civic empowerment in schools and addressing the civic debt in democratic education.
Resources Brown, C. (2020). Women’s Equality 2020. Santa Clara County Office of Education. California Department of Education. (2015). English Language Arts/English Language Development Framework. Retrieved from https://www.mydigitalchalkboard.org/cognoti/content/file/resources/documents/ac/ac1376ba/ac1376ba78a91e80241cb0e458caaa57310d0763/elaeldfmwkfeb17.pdf
California Department of Education. (2017). History-Social Science Framework. Retrieved from https://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/hs/cf/documents/hssframeworkwhole.pdf California Department of Education. (2020). State Seal of Civic Engagement Recommended Criteria. Retrieved from https://www.cde.ca.gov/be/ag/ag/yr20/documents/sep20item05.docx
California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning (2014). Revitalizing K-12 civic learning in California: A blueprint for action. Retrieved from http://www.cde.ca.gov/eo/in/documents/cltffinalreport.pdf
Center for Cities+Schools, University of California, Berkeley. (2016). Youth engagement and authentic student voice in LCAP/LCFF planning processes. Retrieved from https://citiesandschools.berkeley.edu/uploads/PLUS_2015-16_Brief_Derrika_Casey_4.28.16.pdf
Cohen, C., Kahne, J., Marshall, J., Anderson, V., Brower, M., & Knight, D. (2018). Let’s Go There: Race, Ethnicity, and a Lived Civics Approach to Civic Education. GenForward at the University of Chicago. Chicago, IL.
Constitutional Rights Foundation & Los Angeles County Office of Education. (2017) Civic Learning Compendium for the California History-Social Science Framework. Retrieved from https://www.lacoe.edu/Portals/0/Curriculum-Instruction/HSS/Civic%20Learning%20Compendium_CCSS_FINAL.pdf?ver=2017-11-02-115721-493
Education Commission of the States (ECS). (2014). Guidebook: Six proven practices for effective civic education. Retrieved from http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/01/10/48/11048.pdf
Elemen, J. E. (2015). Students’ high school organizational leadership opportunities and their influences on academic achievement and civic participation. Journal of Research in Education, 25(2). Eastern Educational Research Association. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1098005.pdf
Garcia, A. & Mirra, N. (2019). “Signifying nothing”: Identifying conceptions of youth civic identity in the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards and the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ Reading Framework. Berkeley Review of Education, 8(2), 195-223, doi: 10.5070/B88235831
Herczog, M. & Contreras, Y. (2017). Promoting history-social science in your district’s LCAP and Accountability Dashboard Report. Social Studies Review, 11-18. Retrieved from https://schd.ws/hosted_files/cisc2018/3f/Promoting%20HSS%20in%20District%20LCAP%20and%20Dashboard.pdf
Kahne, J. E., & Middaugh, E. (2009). The civic opportunity gap in high school. In Youniss, J. & Levine, P. (Ed.), Engaging young people in civic life (pp. 29-58). Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.
Lo, J. C. (2019). The role of civic debt in democratic education. Multicultural Perspectives, 21(2), 112-118, doi: 10.1080/15210960.2019.1606633
Mirra, N. & Garcia, A. (2020). The profound civics lesson kids are getting from the U.S. government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/05/06/profound-civics-lesson-kids-are-getting-us-governments-response-covid-19-pandemic/
Mitra, D. L., Serriere, S., & Kirshner, B. (2014). Youth participation in U.S. contexts: Student voice without a national mandate. Children & Society, 28, 292-304. doi: 10.1111/chso.12005
Move School Forward. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.moveschoolforward.org/
Promoting Authentic College, Career, and Civic Readiness Assessment Systems (PACCCRAS). (2020). Draft Proposed State Seal of Civic Engagement Roadmap. United Nations (1989). Convention on the Rights of the Child. United Nations: Geneva. Retrieved from http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx
Jennifer Elemen serves as educational administrator at the Monterey County Office of Education. Olivia Santillan and Laura Guajardo serve as coordinators at the Santa Clara County Office of Education.
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