Two years ago, then-American Bar Association President Stephen N. Zack gravely warned: “Civic education courses have become electives in some schools; at others, they are not offered at all. We are producing a generation of citizens who are ill-equipped to govern themselves as participants in our democracy. We must do better” (“Let the Students Speak!” David L. Hudson Jr., Beacon Press, 2011).
This largely remains a very troubling truth. But there are signs that when students have the chance to get involved in our constitutional self-government, they are eager to continue.
In a recent New York Times story (“Election Year Offers Students Livelier Civics Lessons,” March 5, 2012), Yasmeen Khan quotes Will Packer, an 11th-grade applied civics teacher at the Democracy Prep Charter School in Central Harlem, a school that makes such classes a regular part of its mission, who says that along with debate, “students in all grades hold mock elections.”
Adds Packer: “We (at Democracy Prep) believe that no one’s going to hold their hand and make sure that they do these things. We want to make sure that they are enfranchising themselves and empowering themselves to be active citizens in the community.”
Encouraged by this commitment to basic American civics, I remembered that as the 1787 Constitutional Convention was ending in Philadelphia, a woman came up to Benjamin Franklin and asked him what all of this had produced.
“A republic,” said Franklin, “if you can keep it.”
I was determined to find out more about Democracy Prep schools. Are there more like them? Yes, indeed, there are more than 80 schools that operate similarly to Democracy Prep in 13 states nationwide, serving nearly 35,000 students.
Founded by Seth Andrew – who earned an Ed.M in school leadership and school development from Harvard, where he now teaches school leadership as an adjunct professor – “Democracy Prep Public Schools (also) currently operates four high-performing schools in New York and replicated its model twice in Rhode Island” (democracyprep.org).
Andrew, who is Democracy Prep’s superintendent, contributed a chapter to “Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education” (R&L Education, 2011), a book that should be read by school boards, principals, teachers and parents across this land.
Students who are beginning to learn why they are Americans should especially read Andrew’s contribution: “Fighting Civic Malpractice: How a Harlem Charter School Closes the Civic Achievement Gap.”
That school is Democracy Prep Charter Middle School in Central Harlem, which in 2010, Andrew is proud to say, “was named the top-performing middle school and top-performing charter school in the entire City of New York.
“Ninety percent of our citizen-scholars enter our halls substantially behind grade level, averaging third-grade reading skills at the beginning of sixth grade. By the time they reach high school, more than 95 percent demonstrate mastery on the New York State Regents exams” (“Teaching America”).
Now dig this: “But academic growth is not enough to satisfy the mission of Democracy Prep. We must also prepare our citizen-scholars for lives of active citizenship – which is, after all, the true mission of public schools” (“Teaching America”).
Here, directly from Andrew, are the civic values that Democracy Prep schools are trying to uphold:
“What We Stand For”:
“We host elected officials and community leaders at all our schools. Students participate in required community and public service. … Students learn to – and do – meet with elected officials and conduct lobbying visits. They deliver testimony at city and state legislative hearings (they’re the youngest ever to do so in New York and Rhode Island) and learn to write their own testimony effectively.”
In essence, he adds: “We believe that public schools have an obligation to help young people acquire and learn the skills, knowledge and attitudes to become competent citizens throughout their lives.”
I have been writing about education for more than 60 years. By my criteria, students must learn what it means to be active Americans as they help preserve the republic and its personal liberties, which are, as Benjamin Franklin knew, up to We the People to implement and protect. This is why I’m spreading the energizing news about Democracy Prep Public Schools.
Next week I’ll look at how Democracy Prep students build upon what Andrew calls “the foundation of structure and joy” – the joy of liberty. To quote Abraham Lincoln:
“What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, our Army and Navy. These are not our reliance against tyranny. … Our reliance is the love of liberty. … Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism at your door” (From my book, “Living The Bill of Rights,” University of California Press, 1999).
Many years ago, Kathryn Sinclair, a high school student in Murfreesboro, Tenn., asked me: “Why don’t the schools teach why we’re Americans? So few people know.”
Thanks to schools like Democracy Prep, more and more of our students are finally finding out.