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Civics education doesn’t just happen in government class. This is the final story in Voices of Monterey Bay’s Youth Civic Engagement Project, a look at how high school students are staying involved during the COVID-19 pandemic. More on the series and the other stories can be seen here.
During the seven years she was a high school social science teacher, Jennifer Elemen spent countless hours organizing garage sales, raffles and other events to raise enough money so all her students could participate in overnight field trips for the YMCA’s Youth and Government program. Fundraising, she said, often becomes “like a second job” for teachers.
Now an educational administrator at the Monterey County Office of Education, Elemen is working to incorporate civics education into the county’s 24 districts’ local control and accountability plans. The plans, known familiarly as LCAPs, prioritize what individual school districts consider important enough to invest with resources and funding.
The civics education that Elemen and her colleagues across Monterey county have in mind isn’t just the typical high school government class. They are looking for ways to engage students in and out of the classroom, both in schools and in the community.
“The result isn’t just knowing about government and then waiting until you’re (old enough),” said Mark Gomez, a history and social science curriculum specialist for the Salinas Union High School district who works closely with Elemen. “It’s really about the skills of being able to listen to multiple perspectives with empathy and engage in solutions-oriented kinds of discussions.”
Including civics programs in the LCAP is one way to ensure that students have access to civic engagement opportunities and that teachers have the resources they need to create them, Elemen said. Across California, there is little staffing and infrastructure to promote civic learning and only 13 percent of school districts mention civics, citizenship or democracy in their LCAPs, according to a November 2020 study from UCLA and UC Riverside.
Research has shown that getting youth and young adults involved in the civic life of their communities is key to ongoing civic engagement. “Early and ongoing civic learning and youth voice opportunities are really critical for not only … forming civic knowledge and skills, but also those kinds of civic commitments like voting,” said Erica Hodgin, associate director of the Civic Engagement Research Group at UCR and one of the authors of the report.
Gomez said that it’s also important that different disciplines are in conversation with each other, as well as with students’ own lives. “The connecting of how we teach to how we engage students outside the classroom is going to be essential,” he said. “This is not just a thing that lives in social studies. It’s something that can and should be embedded as early as kindergarten, all the way through school and across subjects.”
An English teacher might ask students to engage with political topics in their writing, or math teachers could design homework around voter turnout statistics, Gomez said. Other examples include youth-led participatory action research, where students research real-world questions that are important to them and propose possible solutions.
One of the primary ways the county hopes to expand civic learning opportunities is through the implementation of the State Seal of Civic Engagement, which was adopted by the State Board of Education in September 2020. The Salinas Union High School District will be one of the early adopters of the new Seal, which is similar to the Seal of Biliteracy for students who speak multiple languages. Other states such as Arizona, Georgia, Virginia and Ohio have implemented similar civic engagement and readiness initiatives.
“Our hope is that the seal will raise the profile of the importance of promoting civic learning for all students so that districts and schools are encouraged to integrate a service learning program or civic action project,” Elemen said.
Hodgin, who has been working with Salinas Union to implement the Seal and other civic learning initiatives, says one the goals is to promote equity in access in a district where around 70 percent of its students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. Educators want to ensure that it’s not just the traditional student government leaders and honors students who are able take advantage of programs.
“There is a civic learning gap in terms of which groups of students typically get more of these opportunities,” Hodgin said.
Students, parents and teachers have been involved in deciding what implementation of the Seal might look like in districts across Monterey County. Michael Ndubisi, a senior at North Salinas High School, is one of several students sitting on the Seal advisory committee at Salinas Union HIgh School District. Students have proposed collaborative civic action projects at the classroom level and the hiring of a districtwide civic engagement coordinator, he wrote in a recent essay for Voices.
Implementation of the Seal will build on work that has been ongoing in the county since 2016, when the Board of Education voted to include civic life readiness, alongside college and career readiness, in its mission statement. Also in 2016, the state Board of Education approved a History-Social Science Framework, which outlines standards for social studies and history curriculum.
Since then, the county has created infrastructure for civic learning, such as various youth leadership forums and events for educators that showcase student-led initiatives. For instance, 16-year-old Marianna Zoellin gave the closing keynote on her efforts to diversify the curriculum at Pacific Grove High School at the All In For Equity conference at the end of February.
Other examples include countywide campaigns around the 2020 Census, the 2020 elections and environmental justice. The Monterey County Office of Education has partnered with CSU Monterey Bay on a service learning project that allows college students to earn service learning hours by doing presentations on topics such as voting and voter registration. The county also partners with youth-led organizations like La Cosecha, as well as youth councils in Soledad and Gonzales and the Salinas Valley Dream Academy.
Another example of the county’s efforts is the recently convened Monterey County Youth Climate Leadership Council, which will tie civic action to environmental justice. Elemen says the council is connecting the county climate action plan to the environmental justice work that youth-led groups are already doing.
Elemen also wants to create additional opportunities for students who are not already engaged. “There could be multiple entry points for students, and educators and community members to connect with this project,” whether that be through classroom lessons, school clubs or other outside activities, she said.
Maddie Gill, a sophomore at York School in the city of Monterey, is one of the members of the climate council. She appreciates having a forum that amplifies youth voices at the county level. Environmental justice, Gill said, “literally ties into every aspect of our lives.” The council is looking at everything from pollution and pesticides to transportation and energy.
“It’s just so important that they’ve reached out to (us), because obviously, we’re the ones that are really going to be feeling the climate crisis in Monterey County in the future,” she said.
Starting in the 2021-2022 school year, students in the Salinas Union High School District will be able to earn the Seal of Civic Engagement. Gomez said that students can potentially get the Seal through their work with outside organizations if they are able to connect their work to the civic knowledge and skills that they gained from the activity. “Engaging community groups is explicitly part of our comprehensive plan,” he said.
Gomez is in the process of drafting a civic learning plan for the district based on student input to present to the Salinas Union High School District board. Other districts in Monterey County will be creating their own plans. One potential obstacle is not only getting upper district administration to understand how to integrate civics education across the curriculum, but also to explicitly support it in the district’s LCAP and budget, he said.
The impact of civics learning is also more difficult to measure because its assessment requires more than a multiple choice test, Gomez said.
In addition, math and English are often prioritized over history and social science education.
Elemen said that this issue will be a particular challenge in the post-pandemic context amid discussions of learning loss. “People are going to focus professional learning around addressing those gaps based on math and English Language Arts assessments,” she said.
“There are competing initiatives and priorities that really stifle an innovative and community driven approach to redesigning schools, to reflect the communities that they intend to serve.”
But students who have already taken advantage of leadership opportunities in their schools and communities say that the benefits are clear. Zaira Hernandez, a senior at Alisal High School, felt a sense of community and agency when she joined La Cosecha last summer, partially due to the isolation of the pandemic. “I fell in love with the people and the work,” she said. “Being introduced to the safe environment — how open it was — I’m just so grateful to have found that space, when I know a lot of students don’t have that.”
Participating in leadership opportunities is also a chance to learn about how decision making structures work. Before getting involved in La Cosecha, Hernandez said she wasn’t aware of “basic information” like what a school board of trustees is or who its members are.
Eighteen-year-old Joshua Gonzalez is a Hartnell College student who joined La Cosecha in 2017. “Having that sense that you’re able to do something about the stuff that affects you or the stuff you go through day to day,” he said, “it gets you thinking more than you normally would.”
Ryan Loyola and Sydney Brown contributed reporting to this story.
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