Civic education empowers next generation of San Diego change agents

Posted: Friday, March 15th 2019

From math to Mandarin, every teacher cares deeply about the classes they teach. Those that teach civics, however, would tell you their subject is especially important in the current political climate. The Board of Education agreed with that notion when they passed the resolution from April 14, 2015 to recommit our schools to civics education.

“One of the most common things I hear from people who do not have children in our schools is this. They say, ‘You need to go back to teaching civics,” said Superintendent Cindy Marten. “But civic education is alive and well in San Diego Unified. It’s one of the ways our schools are making our city stronger.”

Whether it’s expressing political will by writing their local or federal representatives, forming clubs to better address issues of equality and inclusion, or lifting up their peers through charitable work, today’s students are changing the world around them for the better.

Civic engagement begins in the classroom, where children are exposed to history and government lessons as early as Grade 3. Action activities may include researching laws and the freedoms they are designed to protect, or writing to elected officials about an issue the student is passionate about.

Even young children begin working within the framework of representative politics through student government. The Council of ASB Presidents and Student Equity Ambassador Program ensure that student voices are heard at the school level and also in the broader community. These “for the students, by the students” initiatives bring student-driven ideas to SDUSD Board Meetings, School Site Council meetings, and even to City Hall.

When students reach the high school level, they find a multitude of opportunities to become a civically engaged. History and Social Science courses focus on topics including U.S. engineering history, American government, public health, and energy policy. High school students also can dig deeper while also earning college credits, with classes available from City and Mesa colleges - and local universities - that include Political Science, U.S. History, Black and Chicano Studies, and Government.

“A strong democracy requires more than voting. It’s more than mechanics,” said Marten. “Civic education is about understanding who we are as a nation, understanding the principles that hold us together. And at the end of the day, we really are one country - united.”

Outside of class, San Diego students are even more active when it comes to shaping the world around them.

For Sabrina Lee, a student from Mt. Everest Academy, civic engagement is exemplified by the work of San Diego Unified’s Student Equity Coalition. “As Student Equity Ambassadors we use our voices to start conversations in our community that we need to be having, and that leads to changes that benefit all SDUSD families and students,” she said. “This year was the first year it was entirely student-led. Each topic was selected by the students, and each event was planned and led by the students.”

In many cases, students’ campus-based activism leads to recognition on a much larger scale.

Anyah Stempien-Smith, a senior at San Diego High School, holds leadership positions in the school’s Black Student Union and PTSA Executive Board, and has been involved in ASB since her freshman year. But perhaps her greatest opportunity came this February, when the district hosted Assemblymember Todd Gloria and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond at Anyah’s school.

“I wanted to get involved because equity is an important issue,” she said. While talking with Superintendent Thurmond, Anyah didn’t hold back. “When I saw the chance to participate at the state level, I jumped at it. I asked him about what he’s doing to address the achievement gap, because it’s something that affects me and a majority of my community.”

After the discussion, Thurmond invited her to attend a California Department of Education conference on “Closing the Achievement Gap” in Sacramento. Anyah was able to visit the Capital before attending the forum, where she heard from state officials.

The conference is ongoing, and Anyah hopes to continue participating. “There’s more discussion to have. By being there I can make sure the voice of my school and my community is being heard by state leaders.”

Going forward, students may even find their own seat at the Board of Education.

A new student-led proposal calls for the addition of a special seat on the San Diego Unified Board, which would be held by a high school student selected by his or her peers from an all-district student advisory board.

One backer of this proposition is Zachary Patterson, a student from University City High School. Patterson is no stranger to high-level civic engagement; he currently participates in the California Association of Student Councils and writes proposals to the Senate Education Committee on Student Affairs. One of these proposals regarding sexual harassment prevention has actually been taken up by the California Legislature, where it will be heard by the Senate committee within the next week.

“This is about understanding students’ needs and making sure we are all represented,” said Patterson, only a freshman. “The student board member would essentially serve as the main voice for all of the students of San Diego Unified, and would make decisions that directly impact students.”

While legal requirements mean the student member’s vote could not affect the numerical outcome of a vote, this position would have the ability to make motions and provide a student voice on the Board of Education. Perhaps most importantly, it would show students across the city that they are already part of the American democratic system they read about in school.

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