CIVICS EDUCATION is vital to the development of all youth and to the health of a vibrant democracy. Current events show us how young people are already leading efforts to shape our communities on issues from climate change to racial justice. Yet civic education, the very thing that prepares young people for robust democratic participation, has been deprioritized and declining in our schools.
That began to change in Massachusetts last year, when the state took the unprecedented step of dedicating $1.5 million to support civics education and the implementation of the landmark civics bill that had passed the year prior. This bill, now a law, mandates that all students are taught civics and engage in real-world civics projects as part of their curriculum. Over half of this funding was directly distributed in grants to school districts, with over a majority to under-resourced schools like ours in Lowell.
As a district leader and middle school educator in Lowell, we have seen firsthand how transformational this grant has been for our students. We used the funds to support teacher stipends, professional development, and ongoing educator coaching while working alongside our nonprofit partner, Generation Citizen, to support teachers in implementing effective civics projects in classrooms. Grant money was also used for busing students to Civics Day at the State House, where students were able to showcase their projects and connect with decision-makers. In the Lowell Public Schools alone, resources from the state grant supported 30 teachers and just over 2,000 students.
Beyond the sheer numbers, the civics funding is having an impact on our students’ development of lifelong civic skills and agency. One 8th grade classroom in the Lowell Pyne Arts Middle School was concerned about the use of e-cigarettes and vaping among their peers. They researched the issue by reading articles and connecting with local community experts such as the Lowell Department of Public Health, Lowell Police DARE, and their three state representatives. They then drafted their own anti-vaping legislation and successfully partnered with one of their state representatives to introduce it into the legislative agenda.
Students took civic action in many ways during the project ,including making calls, writing emails, submitting op-eds, circulating petitions, and creating public service announcements. Not only did they develop the skills for civic engagement, they developed a lasting belief that their voice matters and they can affect change in our democracy.
The impact our students have had on the community through their civics projects in Lowell cannot be understated. Another class focused on addressing youth mental health and advocated for the creation of a new elective which would educate teens about cyber-bullying and harassment, teach them to recognize the signs of distress, and make sure they understand how and where to find help. This past fall, a group of students were recognized by the Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention for their dedication to the issue of teen suicide prevention and the impact they made with their civics projects.
If the civics bill is fully implemented and all students in Massachusetts have the opportunity that our Lowell students have had, our democracy and the future leaders of it will fundamentally change for the better. In order to make this a reality, all school districts, and most acutely under-resourced districts like ours, need ongoing resources and support so educators can apply civics education practices with confidence.
We need to continue to invest in and build off of the great work of this past year in schools. As the Massachusetts Legislature negotiates the fiscal 2021 budget, we urge the Legislature to level fund the Civics Project Trust Fund at $1.5 million once again to support civics education across the Commonwealth.
We are reminded of the importance of this ongoing work by one of our students who sent us a card this summer after doing a civics project in their class earlier that year. The card said, “When I started 8th grade, I was so immature. Your class and our (civics) project made me feel like I had something to say. It showed me a new side of myself. I’m not just a kid and even I can help my community.”
Mike Neagle is a history teacher and Elaine Santelmann is district coordinator of science and social studies in the Lowell Public Schools.