We are the members of the Service Learning Project’s (SLP) inaugural Youth Board, formed to provide a platform for Brooklyn high school students to develop their leadership skills and advocate for legislation that increases student voice and overall civic engagement throughout the city. Over the past six months, we have worked to research the state and significance of civics education, culturally responsive education, and service learning in New York City schools through conducting surveys and interviews as well as analyzing secondary sources.
To put our findings into action, we decided to write a comprehensive letter, detailing our three point plan for increasing civic engagement among NYC public school students:
- Making sure that every student has access to at least one year of a proper civics class and voter registration resources.
- Making sure that curriculum is culturally responsive and sensitive and teaching staff is an accurate representation of the diversity of the city and have been properly trained to be culturally sensitive.
- Making sure every student participated in a service learning project, or a hands on opportunity to make a difference on issues they care about and see them selves as active participants in their community.
We shared our letter (the text of which is included in full below) with Mayor de Blasio’s newly formed Commission on Civic Engagement as well as adult allies throughout city government. To support the work of the Youth Board, share the letter on social media tagging city policy makers and share the letter with your friends.
Dear Members of the New York City Civic Engagement Commission,
Education should provide opportunities for young people of all ages to think critically about the world, engage in service learning, and help make public policy. As high school students, advocates for education equity, and members of the Service Learning Project (SLP) Youth Board, we know firsthand how vital it is for every young person to learn about government and advocacy and have opportunities to take action on issues that affect their communities. At SLP, we believe children and teens have powerful solutions to complex problems facing our country. Our mission is to create opportunities for youth (K-12) to become active citizens in their schools and communities.
We are asking you to help ensure access to culturally responsive, project-based civic education for every student in New York City. We are excited for your leadership in working to “enhance civic participation, promote civic trust, and strengthen democracy in New York City,”1 which must include civic education for every student. Civic education should be culturally-responsive, taught by educators who reflect the student body, and incorporated throughout the K-12 curriculum. It should include student-led service learning projects, voter registration, and citizenship and government education.
Action civics and service learning are approaches to civic education that engage students actively to serve their communities while learning and developing important skills, such as research, writing, and public speaking. Action civics not only helps develop active and informed citizens, but also supports youth voice and leadership, increases youth civic participation, and supports community transformation.2 Service learning also exposes youth to the social and political issues present in their communities and encourages them to participate in their government and local communities as students and in their adult lives.3 For example, SLP’s students choose an issue they care about (recent topics include homelessness, gun violence, and water pollution), become experts on it, come up with a solution to the problem, and actually implement it. In a small survey of NYC high school students across 11 Brooklyn schools, students averaged only 2.7 of 5 in how supported they felt by teachers to be activists in their community, but every student described an issue that is important to them in their community, such as school segregation and reproductive rights. Students who participate in service learning are more likely to see themselves as leaders and believe they can have a positive impact in their community.
Culturally Responsive Civic Education
Students cannot be active participants in their own communities if they have not seen themselves as active participants throughout history and in their own education. New York City must do better to provide culturally responsive education in alignment with the New York State Education Department’s Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Framework, which includes a general history curriculum, motivating students to be responsible in their own education, and teaching adolescents to be upstanders through action civics opportunities.4 When students are not taught the history from their own culture, racial identity, or religion, and instead must hear a Eurocentric story, they lose motivation. Sokhnadiarra, one of our Youth Board members, was in U.S history class one day in 2018 and found it hard to concentrate because of the noise and conversations among students around her. When she told them to be quiet, they said, “Who cares? It’s white history anyway.” Research shows that starting as early as kindergarten, black students retain significantly less information than white students.5 As New York City works to integrate schools, culturally responsive education is all the more important to inspire black and brown kids to feel their story is worth being told.
Culturally responsive education in the classroom also improves a child’s feeling of worth and confidence in their ability to pursue change in their lives, including being active and informed citizens. The Asia Society explains “the civic empowerment gap,” that “white, college-bound youth attending mid- to high socioeconomic schools have more access to civic learning opportunities than peers who are low-income, non-college bound, or students of color,” even though black and brown students would benefit from civic education the most. Although it is important for white students to learn to be upstanders, it is equally if not more important to ensure black and brown, low-income students see people like them as leaders throughout history, gain tools to speak on social and community issues, and be instilled with the confidence that their voice has power and they can create positive change in their communities.
Citizenship and Government Education
A democracy with uninformed citizens is a democracy with inactive citizens. The purpose of education should be to equip students with the tools and knowledge they need to be educated and active citizens in society, but when schools fail to provide students with that knowledge, they not only fail youth, but also our country. It is hard to be active in a system that you know nothing about just as it is hard for a chef to craft a meal without knowing the ingredients. If students understood how our democracy functions and the impact of their actions, they would be more inclined to take part in it because they would understand when it is not functioning the way it should. In the current state of our school system, many students lament that they are not being taught skills they will need to be the best citizens they can be. Rather, as one student put it, “I waste hours in a classroom, memorizing things I’ll soon forget.” With citizenship and government education, however, students will both understand their role in local, state, and federal government and foster skills like critical thinking and the ability to converse with people who think differently from them, which will help them prosper both in school and in the “real” world. Schools should also provide opportunities for voter registration for every eligible student.
Every student in New York City deserves access to culturally responsive service learning and action-based civic education. We welcome the opportunity to meet in-person to share more about our proposals for access to civic education across New York City.
Members of the Youth Board
Service Learning Project (SLP)