Teaching Civic Engagement in a Divisive Political Era

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Take a look inside the growing effort to teach civic education in Ventura County in the latest edition of VCOE's Focus on Education. From an elementary school program that teaches students about the inner-workings of Congress to a high school that's partnering with the Reagan Library, Ventura County educators are giving students the tools they'll need to be engaged and informed citizens of our nation. 



Civic Education in Ventura County Schools
Fall 2017
Stanley C. Mantooth, Ventura County Superintendent of Schools
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Teaching Civic Engagement in a Divisive Political Era
US Constitution More than one third of Americans can't name any of our three branches of government according to a new poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Disheartening statistics like this are nothing new, but a growing sense of urgency about the need for basic civic knowledge is.
The bitter 2016 presidential campaign exposed our kids to the critically important and often messy inner workings of America's democracy. For many, it inspired a thirst to learn more about the role they will play shaping our national destiny as citizens of this great nation. 
We're happy to report that local educators and statewide policymakers are answering the call to better inform students about the civic rights and responsibilities that come with being an American. Read on to find out about the innovative ways Ventura County schools are preparing students to understand how government functions so they can be active participants in making positive change from city hall to Capitol Hill.
Stan Mantooth_ Ventura County Superintendent of Schools

  Stan Mantooth
  Ventura County Superintendent of Schools
"We the People" Brings Civics Education to Conejo 5th Graders
Ryan Eby from Banyan Elementary School in Newbury Park
Ryan Eby
As a fifth grader at Banyon Elementary School in Newbury Park, Ryan Eby and his classmates got to learn about American government in an unusual way. They testified before a group of local leaders in a simulated congressional hearing at California Lutheran University. 
Ryan admits it was a bit intimidating for the students. "They were super afraid to talk to the judges," he says. "But in the end everybody mastered their speeches and I really had fun." 
The simulated hearing was part of the "We the People" civic education program that's used in the Conejo Valley Unified School District. Based on a curriculum created by the Center for Civic Education, it teaches students about the Constitution, the branches of government and civic responsibility. 
"I love the program," says coordinator Kim Tetzlaff. "It really gets the students engaged and educates them about their rights. I have parents telling me they're amazed by the conversations they're having at home that come out of the program."
Tetzlaff says teachers are careful to keep the lessons non-partisan and to encourage students to consider both sides of political issues. "I tell them if you're going to argue one way, I'm going to always challenge you to think of the other side."
Ryan says he appreciates having a better idea about what it means to be a citizen. "Like if you have to do jury duty, you understand how the government works and how the court system runs." 
Since its inception in 1987, more than 28 million students and 75,000 educators nationwide have participated in "We the People." More information about the program is available here.
"Democracy is worth dying for, because it's the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man."
--Ronald Reagan
Reagan Library Partnership Pays Off for Royal High Students 
Ronald Reagan Citizen Scholar Institute students being honored at the Reagan Library
Ronald Reagan Citizen Scholar Institute students being honored at the Reagan Library
Sharing a ZIP code with one of the nation's most popular presidential libraries is creating unique opportunities for students at Royal High School in Simi Valley. The school has partnered with the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library to create the Ronald Reagan Citizen Scholar Institute, which offers students the chance to learn about public policy and political leadership.

Students who are accepted to the Institute receive a special diploma seal if they meet a series of requirements designed to get them civically involved. Students must complete a service learning project, take on a leadership role in a campus organization and finish an advanced placement social science or social studies course.

As part of the program, Royal High School graduate Giuliana Petrocelli produced a documentary video about a survivor of the holocaust. She says the institute helped her become a more engaged citizen. "It's inspiring because it opens doors to different opportunities and different viewpoints of the world that can help a student grow and discover themselves," she says.

The Institute brings a variety of guest speakers to campus, including elected officials and community leaders. Last year, students got to meet and pose questions to candidates for Congress, the state legislature and the local school board. 
The program is guided by recommendations from Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools, a report from the Leonore Annenberg Institute for CivicsOne of those recommendations is to discuss current events and controversial political topics. Royal High School history teacher and program adviser Brian Dennert says teachers make sure to explore both sides of contentious issues. "We've got to embrace that controversy and do it in a respectful way so we understand each other's viewpoints." 
Research has found that a balanced, thoughtful discussion of topical issues keeps students more engaged in learning about civics and the political process. Dennert says the current political climate is spurring more interest in government among students. "I definitely feel it's more relevant to them now. They're getting why it's so important."
"Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education."
--Franklin D. Roosevelt
Friday Night Live Empowers Students to Make Change Locally
Friday Night Live students with their map showing stores that sell alcohol and tobacco near schools
Friday Night Live students with their map showing stores that sell alcohol and tobacco near schools
A group of students from Oxnard and Ventura decided to take action last year when they found out stores may be illegally advertising alcohol and tobacco products near their schools. They conducted a survey to determine how many stores were selling the products and whether they were complying with a state law that limits alcohol and tobacco marketing near schools. 
This year, the students will take the next step by presenting their findings to the Oxnard City Council. They will ask the city to adopt an ordinance that more strictly enforces regulations about the marketing of alcohol and tobacco products near schools. 
The project is part of the Friday Night Live (FNL) program, which is run by the Ventura County Office of Education and teaches students how to engage with local government to improve their communities. "I always want young people to know that they're constituents of their schools and of the communities where they live," says FNL project specialist Gabe Teran. "They have a voice and that voice has a lot of power." 
Rene Garcia joined Friday Night Live while attending Hueneme High School
Rene Garcia joined Friday Night Live while attending Hueneme High School
Rene Garcia joined FNL while attending Hueneme High School. "I think it's important for youth at that age to be told that their voice matters and to show it in action," he says. "When we get them involved young, hopefully that pushes them towards being contributing adults and being a little bit more conscious."
There are currently 22 FNL chapters at schools throughout Ventura County. Students and parents who are interested in starting a new chapter can contact Gabe Terran at  805-437-1374 or gteran@vcoe.org. More information about Ventura County FNL is available at www.fnlvc.com.
"You cannot preserve what you have not studied, you cannot protect what you do not comprehend, you cannot defend what you do not know."
--Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy
Mock Trial Gives Students Hands-On Look at the Court System
High school students play the roles of attorneys and witnesses during Mock Trial
High school students play the roles of attorneys and witnesses during Mock Trial
Before real judges in actual courtrooms, Ventura County high school students take on the roles of attorneys, witnesses and defendants. They're participants in the Ventura County Mock Trial, which teaches students about the judicial system in a way that goes far beyond what they can learn in class.

VCOE has coordinated Mock Trial in conjunction with the Constitutional Rights Foundation since 1984. "It has the feel of a real trial," says John Tarkany, VCOE's coordinator of student competitions. "The competition is intense and the students put in many hours of practice so they'll be ready to make their case."
Damon Huss, a curriculum specialist with the Constitutional Rights Foundation says Mock Trial exposes students to the important guarantees granted to Americans in the Bill of Rights. "For example, being able to confront witnesses against you if you're a defendant or your right to a speedy public trial and your right to force the government to prove their case against you beyond a reasonable doubt."
Wren Palmer participated in Mock Trial each of the four years she attended Channel Islands High School. "It requires you to learn legal jargon, how to compose yourself in a courtroom and to think on your feet," she says. "It forced me to be a leader who is not only capable of running a big group, but also being versatile in my own capabilities." 
The 2018 Ventura County Mock Trial will take place in February. The registration period runs December 11 to January 18. More information is available at www.vcoe.org/mocktrial.
"The strength of our democratic institutions relies on the public's understanding of those institutions."
--California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye
Local Judges Work to Expand Civic Learning in Ventura County
Ventura County Superior Court Judges Matthew Guasco and Brian Back
Ventura County Superior Court Judges Matthew Guasco and Brian Back
In recent years, Ventura County Superior Court Judge Matthew Guasco made a troubling observation about some of the people assigned to jury duty in his courtroom. "Too many people honestly didn't know about the opportunities and responsibilities of citizenship...very basic things like our three branches of government," he says.
Inspired to take action, Judge Guasco and fellow judge Brian Back approached the Ventura County Office of Education about creating a Civic Learning Partnership in Ventura County. The partnership will bring together judges, educators and business leaders to recognize effective civic education programs that are already in place and encourage their expansion to other schools. "The goal is to make sure that each citizen who achieves adulthood has a basic fund of knowledge that will assist him or her when they exercise these really precious rights and responsibilities of citizenship," Judge Guasco says.
The partnership is based on the "Power of Democracy" campaign championed by California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. She is advocating the creation of Civic Learning Partnerships in each of California's 58 counties. Judge Guasco hopes the local effort will help cut through the flood of distractions that today's students face on a daily basis. "The irony is that we're in a very high information volume society right now, but I would not say that it's necessarily increasing knowledge or wisdom."
One of the campaign's initiatives is the Civic Learning Awards which celebrate model civics programs in public schools across the state. Applications for this year's awards are available here and the deadline is January 19, 2018.
"An educated, enlightened and informed population is one of the surest ways of promoting the health of a democracy."
--Nelson Mandela
Civic Education Gets a Boost from New State Framework
Educators from throughout the region learn about new the new History-Social Science Framework at VCOE
Educators from throughout the region learn about new the new History-Social Science Framework at VCOE
California teachers have a new tool to help them bring civic education to their classrooms. The newly-developed California History-Social Science Framework provides strategies to increase civic knowledge starting as early as kindergarten. 
"We've repurposed the teaching of social studies to really prepare young people to be informed, actively engaged and responsible citizens," says Dr. Michelle Herczog, who helped author new instructional materials for teaching civics. 

Herczog encourages schools to expand civics education beyond the minimum state requirements, which only call for one semester of civic education in 12th grade. "It's about flexing those civic muscles," she says. "I want my child to go to school and have a safe place to have a deep conversation about issues that are hitting families very personally."

Herczog says the current political climate has many teachers nervous about discussing politics in class. But she says there's nothing to fear if it's done with care. "It's not our job to turn kids into junior Democrats, junior Republicans or junior independents, but to frame a conversation that's neutral and is going to allow for those different points of view to come forth."

Local schools are getting support expanding civic learning from the Ventura County Office of Education. VCOE recently hosted a regional roll-out of the new History-Social Science Framework. "One of the major instructional shifts in the framework is providing opportunities for civic engagement," says VCOE content specialist Stephanie Enriquez. "We will continue to expand our professional development for local schools and districts in civic education."
"The qualifications for self-government in society are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training."
--Thomas Jefferson
California High Schoolers Can Pre-Register to Vote at Age 16
Pre-register at sixteen. Vote at eighteen.
High school students in California don't have to wait until they're 18 to register to vote. The state now allows 16 and 17-year-olds to pre-register so they will automatically be eligible to vote once they turn 18.  
This new option for California teenagers is the result of a bill introduced by State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, who represents west Ventura County. It's an effort to increase voter registration among young people, which lags well behind older age groups. The new system also provides an opportunity for schools to incorporate voter pre-registration into high school civics classes. 
Students, parents and teachers can learn more and find a link to pre-register online by clicking here.
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We welcome your questions or comments. Please email them to Ventura County Office of Education Director of Communications Dave Schermer.