This is one of a series of stories in Voices of Monterey Bay’s Youth Civic Engagement Project, a look at how high school students are staying involved in civic organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic. More on the series here.
By Michael Ndubisi
As the nation continues to face a global pandemic, widespread economic hardship, heated racial strife, a constitutional crisis and several other unprecedented challenges simultaneously, youth across the country are leading efforts to mitigate these challenges. Training new leaders is the first challenge.
In an effort to promote leadership development, the California Board of Education in September established a recognition program for students who demonstrate “civic readiness.” The creation of a state Seal of Civic Engagement comes after a years-long effort by educators and activists to create incentives for students to become engaged students in their communities.
The Salinas Union High School District is one of the first in California to begin planning meetings about how to implement the Seal in its schools. With input from various interest groups like parents, teachers, students, and local leaders, officials discussed how best to roll out the Seal program in their communities. As of this month, the advisory committee has met six times to create administrative recommendations for the district and its 10 schools to follow. The district has given special attention to student voices from across the city as the committee aims to elevate student voices.
As a grassroots organizer myself, I have been involved in the advisory committee meetings. I believe that building communities partly involves amplifying youth voices and empowering students to realize their potential in improving the world around them. The other student leaders on the committee come from a wide range of organizing communities and hold a spectrum of opinions and beliefs.
During our time on the committee, we have all called for broad participation and diverse representation in crafting recommendations for the district. We understand that while the Seal is an easy fit for students like those of us who are already interested and active in civic life, some people question whether the Seal will be accessible to students with fewer opportunities to participate in civic engagement opportunities.
Unfortunately, Salinas is infamous for its historically high rates of gang violence, youth homicide and poverty. Although the city is improving, many of its residents still deal with these issues daily, and these difficulties are barriers to the level of youth engagement the state hopes to achieve. In recognizing these barriers, we have emphasized the importance of integrated civics education in our recommendations. The idea is that if engagement is too difficult to achieve in students’ private lives, perhaps it can be achieved in the six hours a day students spend in classrooms.
This means that regardless of a student’s home situation or living conditions outside of school, they will still have the opportunity to contribute to their community. The diversity of students who are involved increases the likelihood they can call attention to the issues affecting all lives. This helps improve the community in a more meaningful way because the people most impacted by these issues will be at the forefront of effecting change in them.
And by infusing the values of civic engagement into core classes like English, history, science, and math, educators can empower students to become civic actors applying what they learn in school to the real world. The result will be more student leaders, but the effort will also help students better understand course content through its application.
To achieve this, the committee has included several recommendations for increased training for teachers and administrators for new civics educational standards.
Civics-centered education is not a novel idea and Salinas Union is looking to other districts that have implemented similar initiatives. One example are student-driven civic action efforts in Oakland Unified School District, such as a recent survey on student mental health during the pandemic.
But structural barriers like the strict and often unforgiving schedule of Advanced Placement courses may make this process an uphill battle. The College Board, the organization that administers Advanced Placement and SAT tests, has made some effort to encourage service learning by offering awards to students who organize service projects tailored to the subject of their Advanced Placement course.
But even if teachers find a way to plan integrated civics into their already busy schedules, the district’s budgetary restrictions pose another, larger obstacle. If the district and individual schools are unable to make room in the budget for this new civics curriculum, the bold vision of a civically engaged Salinas may just become another unfunded bureaucratic mandate.
To remedy this, we have proposed several cost-free recommendations to the district that can promote civic engagement. Recognizing that that officials like former Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who replaced Kamala Harris in the U.S. Senate, and Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis have become increasingly concerned about low voter registration and turnout among youth, the Salinas advisory committee aims to go beyond the traditional efforts to register voters and teach basic civic skills. Instead, we hope to see students become involved on three levels: school-wide, district-wide and in the larger community. Our goal is to make the Seal accessible to all eligible students in our district.
We have proposed collaborative civic action projects at the classroom level and the hiring of a district-wide civic engagement coordinator to help keep students abreast of the issues facing the community. We want to connect students to opportunities to participate in district decision-making and to have support and resources to effect meaningful change.
As a student representative on the committee, I have been able to see the immense and inspiring energy that parents, teachers, administrators, and my fellow students have brought to each meeting. There is a real sense in the group that, together, we can completely change the trajectory of many students’ lives for the better.
Student members of the advisory committees have been extremely vocal throughout this process. We have made concrete proposals for how students can get involved in such decisions, like allowing students to vote for their own representatives to serve on the local board of trustees.
The committee believes that the Seal program will “break down the walls between classroom and community” while opening the floodgates to the endless possibilities for civic action projects in areas that students are truly passionate about in Salinas.
However, until the committee holds its final meeting and the program is eventually approved, the test of whether the Seal of Civic Engagement will actually tackle the city’s deeper issues remains to be seen.
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