Academic journal article High School Journal

Listening to the Voices of Civically Engaged High School Students

Academic journal article High School Journal

Listening to the Voices of Civically Engaged High School Students

Article excerpt

This study examines why a group of students representing two high schools became involved in an activist organization, the benefits they gained as a result, the impact they had on their school and community, and their recommendations for how school personnel can foster civic engagement in young people. The student-led group campaigned for a school levy, produced a documentary on diversity, hosted a Community Forum on school climate, and educated classmates on the root causes of hunger. Data were analyzed through the lens of positive youth development theory. Findings confirmed previous research suggesting the bi-directional nature of development, in which young people with significant developmental assets both contributed to the community and garnered additional assets as a result of their engagement. Members of the group recommended that school personnel invite and value student input, foster respectful discourse on controversial issues, show students models of engagement in the community and invite them to become involved, facilitate access to resources, and mentor students on navigating systems. The researchers recommend that school personnel foster a school climate conducive to civic engagement, nurture student leadership among all demographic groups, and promote opportunities for collective action on issues relevant to students' lived experiences.

Key Words: youth civic engagement, youth activism, positive youth development, civic education


A critical role of American schools is to prepare young people for citizenship, and yet recent reports indicate a decline in high-quality civic education and a low rate of civic engagement of young people (Gould, 2011; Kahne & Sporte, 2008; U.S. Department of Education, 2012; Westheimer, 2008). For example, less than 50% of young adults (age 18-24) voted in presidential elections from 1972 through 2012 (Commission for Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge, 2013). After the enactment of No Child Left Behind 2002, focus on civics in schools decreased, with 71% of school districts surveyed reporting that they had narrowed their curriculum to make room for more reading and math (Rentner et al., 2006). Citing data from the U.S. Department of Education, West (2007) reported a decrease in the amount of time spent on social studies in elementary classrooms between 1999 and 2004. Since then, results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed a decline in civic knowledge of high school seniors between 2006 and 2010, with only 24% of 12th-graders proficient in civics in 2010.

The term civic education means more than classroom civics. The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools (Gould, 2011) describes practices that encompass a high quality civic learning experience. These include classroom instruction, discussion of controversial issues relevant to young people, service-learning and other extra-curricular opportunities, participation in school governance, and simulations to allow students to experience the democratic process. According to Levinson (2012), schools should be places where students are empowered to practice and develop civic skills, engaging in real political activities such as voter registration and community organizing.

Walzer (cited in Flanagan, 2013) defines a citizen as a member of a civic community with accompanying benefits, rights, and responsibilities. The term civic engagement relates to the responsibilities of citizens and can refer to voting, obeying laws, providing community service, supporting political campaigns, community organizing, and protesting. Westheimer and Kahne (2004) describe three kinds of citizens: personally responsible, participatory, and justice-oriented. Personally responsible citizens obey the laws and contribute to various needs when asked. Participatory citizens understand how the government works and take a more active role by voting and providing leadership in community efforts. …

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