Secondary School Principal of the Year Reflects on the Importance of Civic Learning

August 14, 2018

By Mark Anderson, Principal of Marshall Fundamental Secondary, Pasadena, CA

Principal Mark Anderson

As educational leaders, our plate is full. Priority is given to areas measured on the California School Dashboard. Unfortunately, one area that can get lost in the maelstrom of our professional lives is the need to place an emphasis and value on civic learning.

Civic learning helps students access the world around them

According to the report Democracy for some: the civic opportunity gap in high school, “…Low-income students, students of color, and young people not planning to attend college had access to fewer effective civic learning opportunities.” (Kahne & Middaugh, 2008).

Marshall Fundamental bucks these statistics. Marshall is an urban school— nearly 70% of the students qualify for free/reduced lunch and 80% are Latino or African American. But Marshall’s teachers and administrators purposefully focus on civic learning to ensure our students will have a leading voice in the community.

I have learned that most of us have the tools and know-how to engage students in civics. The work does not need to be another task on our plate; civic learning can be the glue that aligns all our demands into a powerful focus.

These tenets will help guide this work and create opportunities for your students to have an equal voice in your school and the future of our citizenry.

  • Be purposeful and explicit in your work around civic learning
  • Connect your school with the community
  • Be the megaphone for students’ voices
  • Make the civics course meaningful

Amplify student voices

By purposefully and explicitly identifying work as civic learning, it changes the mindset about why we do the work. Let people know their ideas and actions matter—listen and respond. When students and teachers feel like the work matters, they will give more of themselves.

We found power and authenticity in the work when students focused on projects and then took them to industry professionals and legislators to share their ideas. When industry professionals and legislators value the public schools and embrace the ideals of the students, a symbiotic relationship supports the growth of the entire community.

Ensure that student voices are heard and valued—not just at school, but in the entire community. When students feel their voice matters within the system, they will not try to disrupt the system to be heard.

All students take a Civics course, generally in the 12th grade. The class can be just another course, or it can be a course that matters. Effective Civics courses fully engage students through an open climate, where they can examine and take part in social and political topics, simulations, service-learning projects, and interactions with civic role models (Kahne & Middaugh, 2008).

To ensure students from all backgrounds, socioeconomic status, and ethnicities have a voice in our community for their lifetime, we—educators, business professionals, and legislators—need to involve our students in civic learning. The way to create and improve on society is to build up the youth—all youth, from every ethnicity and socioeconomic class—so they take the lead.

Kahne, J., & Middaugh, E. (2008). Democracy for some: The civic opportunity gap in high school. CIRCLE Working Paper, 59, 1-30.