In 2018, it was Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg pushing the conversation about gun control to the forefront of our national conversation after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In 2019, it was Greta Thunberg leading the global charge on enacting substantive climate action legislation with her Fridays for Future strikes. Students have consistently been at the forefront of political movements, but who is pushing them into the spotlight and on a path of activism work?
For those students mentioned, the crises of climate change and gun violence were too pressing to ignore. For thousands of other young people, such as Sweetwater Union High School District alumnus Brenna Pangelinan, it’s a gradual shift that is nudged along by the support of peers, teachers or school communities.
When Pangelinan decided to run for a position on her school board at age 15, she had no idea it would lead her to a lifelong passion for education advocacy and a spot on the California State Board of Education. Wondering how she could get involved in her community, and sincerely doubting that she’d be able to have any real impact as a teen, she took a chance and stepped out of her comfort zone. Now, as an activist for education equity and first-year student at Brown University, she strongly advocates alongside student-led groups like GENup for California schools implementing the State Seal of Civic Education (SSCE).
The SSCE, if implemented, would create a shift in the collective mindset of our state’s schools toward prioritizing civic engagement education, providing guidance and resources for students to become involved in activism, and incentivizing community organizing work. Students who meet the requirements for the Seal by participating in community projects, civic-related activities or programs will receive the award on their transcripts and high school diploma, in the hopes that it will move the state towards a larger trend of increased youth voter turnout and democratic participation.
For students to be motivated to vote, they need to know how government policies and laws directly affect them, and schools are currently failing students in this regard. When American students had their civic knowledge tested with an exam from the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2011, they overwhelmingly fell below the mark of proficiency. Only one-third of the eighth grade students tested could define a historical purpose the Declaration of Independence served, and less than a fifth of seniors in high school could explain why it was important for citizens to participate in their democracy.
When this data is broken down by race and class structures, the amount of American students who are being taught crucial civic knowledge becomes even more dismal. Students of Hispanic or African-American descent are two times more likely to score below proficient than their white counterparts on civics assessments, and these gaps directly correlate with voting turnout in adulthood. Minority citizens eligible to vote typically do so at two-thirds the rate of white citizens, and families that make above $75,000 annually are two times more likely to vote and six times more likely to be politically active than families who make below $15,000.
Early and ongoing civic learning opportunities have been found to increase students’ chances of both staying in school, and being more engaged while in school. A study conducted by researchers from Stanford University and UC Irvine found that ninth-grade students who were enrolled in some form of Ethnic Studies curriculum in San Francisco that emphasized civics had on average a higher GPA and better attendance rate. In fact, taking any courses that require community service and participating in student government have been found to predict an increase in high school graduation and college attendance and success. The adoption of the SSCE in local school districts will both incentivize student achievement and encourage further development of civic-minded lessons and curriculum to be developed in classrooms, encouraging students to reach their potential for bettering their community.
This is not the first time California’s Department of Education has pioneered the creation of a seal recognizing student achievement either. Officially implemented by the state in 2011, the Seal of Biliteracy, which students can earn by proving fluency in two or more languages, has spread to almost 40 states that now offer similar awards for their students. If local school districts commit to adopting the SSCE like they did with the Seal of Biliteracy a decade ago, there will be strong potential for the swift spread of civic engagement seals nationwide and a more widespread mechanism for encouraging students to contribute to their states’ political affairs.
It is crucial that young people are educated and engaged in their local politics, so they can make informed, community-oriented decisions when they vote. The widespread adoption of the SSCE will be a key catalyst to begin incorporating civic engagement into the culture and fabric of our schools. If you believe our youth should be given the necessary tools to immediately make positive change in their communities, urge your district’s Board of Education trustees to adopt the SSCE.
Josette, Benjamin and Rylee are members of the student-led education advocacy organization GENup, where they work as communications directors. GENup is California based, but operates through local-level chapters across the state and beyond. Local GENup chapters will be advocating for the State Seal of Civic Engagement to be implemented in their respective school districts. To learn more about GENup, or get involved with a chapter near you, visit generationup.net