Monday, April 30, 2012

Street Law Connects Community College Students to Civics

by Andrea Jett Fletcher, Senior Program Officer, Civics Program

The early mission of the nation’s two-year colleges was a practical one: to develop the local workforce by teaching concrete skills and trades. Preparing students for meaningful participation in civic life wasn’t part of the agenda. Thanks to the work of Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Street Law, that’s about to change. Today, City Colleges of Chicago—one of the largest community college systems in the country, serving 120,000 students annually—is piloting a law-related civics course designed for community colleges.

Launched at Harold Washington College this spring, this innovative course offers a practical understanding of the U. S. legal system by exploring areas of the law that directly affect students’ daily lives.  Before this year, almost 40 percent of the community colleges in the United States offered law classes, but only as part of career training programs such as pre-law and criminal justice. None of them directly connected the curriculum to democratic engagement. Now Street Law is making that connection.

For Lee Arbetman, executive director of Street Law, professional training and civic literacy should not be mutually exclusive.

"Some think that increased focus on civic learning will mean less attention to workforce preparation. We think they are mistaken… High quality civic learning develops powerful skills that are essential for both democratic practice and workforce preparation: complex problem solving, advocacy and communication, and the ability to collaborate with diverse colleagues," he said.

According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), most students entering public community colleges received much less civics education in K–12 than their peers attending private four-year colleges. With community colleges becoming the largest, fastest growing and most diverse segment of the higher education market, these institutions could play a critical role in narrowing that gap.

This new course is indicative of a budding national movement of community colleges to develop and expand programs, projects and curricula that engage students in civic learning and democratic practice.

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