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Learning civics: Students ask for more classes to prepare them to vote

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    Christian Gould, center, presents a petition requesting increased civics education at the Jim Thorpe Area School District board of education meeting. Fellow students Trevor Keefer, left, and Nick Rosahac, right, joined Gould at the meeting. Scan this picture with the Prindeo app to see a video of Gould. BRIAN W. MYSZKOWSKI/TIMES NEWS

Published May 23. 2018 02:56PM

Students at Jim Thorpe Area High School want to broaden their political education.

During the school board meeting this month, student Christian Gould presented the members of the board with a petition to implement mandatory civic education as a graduation requirement.

“I am a very politically involved person, and I came to the realization that that’s not very common with the people I speak with. I talk to people in their 20s and 30s, and they don’t know who represents them in Congress, or the Pennsylvania State House. They’re not involved. So, I thought, how can I change this, how can I get people more educated and involved in politics?” Gould said.

The answer, he decided, was promoting education within the realm of the high school, where many students come of age to vote in their senior year, or shortly after.

Getting the vote out

“You’re just getting to the point of actually becoming engaged and voting. If you have a crash course of what to do and the issues that we are facing today, you can go ahead and get involved,” Gould said.

And that’s not just a frivolous assumption. In states where there is a mandate for civics in high school curricula, there is a higher return rate for voters between the ages of 18 and 21.

“Overall, it appears that states that strengthened or maintained their civic education requirements had higher youth turnout in 2012 than states that had cut their civic education requirements, but the turnout difference was already evident before any recent changes in laws,” a report from The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement said.

Gould put together a petition requesting that the school board increase civics education, preferably with a required class. While shopping the idea around with fellow students and teachers, he found a number of people willing to contribute to the conversation.

“They had some ideas of their own. So, I had it whittled down to the maximum request of the poli-sci and economics, and the minimum request, which was a one credit, one semester class of civics that I think they should take in their senior year,” he said.

Reviewing civics class

Principal Thomas Lesisko said that faculty and administration members have been discussing the matter of civics for at least two years.

“It’s something we’ve been talking about with the social studies department. Should we have a stand-alone civics course, should we introduce more civics? Because we’re finding kids are not getting the full grasp of how government runs and their responsibility as citizens,” he said.

Lesisko said that he found participation in the recent primaries in both Jim Thorpe and Nesquehoning “lousy,” and he hopes that increased education could spur more participation, especially among the youth.

“Civics really encourages that activity. Understanding government would help people get involved, getting to know their candidates,” he said.

While just about everyone can agree that a more informed youth demographic is a great idea, the question about how to implement an education standard is the problem.

Social studies teacher John Searfoss said that with the broad scope of social studies topics — including history, economics, politics and more — there is very little room to dedicate to one subject.

“I would not be opposed to it, but you would have to take away from the 11th- and 12th-grade courses. My question would be, what would we be willing to cut out of our current curriculum? Economics? Current events?” he said.

Test requirement

Searfoss did say that there is a chance that Pennsylvania would implement a civics testing requirement in the vein of more than a dozen other states, in which case the curriculum may be overhauled to make more room for the subject.

In any case, Gould stresses that a better working understanding of federal, state and local government and voting processes is essential for the modern youth.

More and more young people are beginning to take an active role in their governance, and these students need to know how the machine works in order to accomplish their goals.

“We’ve seen students at Parkland (Florida) who have gone out and become involved, and made their voices heard. You see it every day on national television, and they’re not going to stop. And I think we need to open up that opportunity for kids to go out there and become involved,” he said, pointing out that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had a celebrated civics program that helped the students with their mission.

And that understanding, Gould said, will be an invaluable resource for students and other young voters to navigate the myriad bodies of government that are staffed by elected officials.

“I think if we do institute more civic education in the high school, we need to make it very clear that it’s federal elections, local elections, statewide, townships, school boards, boroughs, presidential, governor, senator, congressmen, statehouse, everything. You need to be involved,” he said.

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