Supporting Youth Civic Development

This article is written by Program Officer, Sonia Mathew, and introduces the Democracy Program’s work in youth civic learning.

In my three years at the Foundation, I have had the privilege of working with the Democracy Schools Initiative, which has strengthened schoolwide civic learning and engagement throughout Illinois. Illinois Democracy Schools are high schools recognized for consciously promoting civic engagement by all students, focusing intentionally on fostering participatory citizenship and placing an emphasis on helping students understand how the fundamental ideals and principles of our democratic society relate to important current problems, opportunities and controversies. Since 2006, 74 high schools have been recognized throughout the state.

Our work to “Engage Youth Civically” builds upon the important foundation that Democracy Schools have created to ensure that our young people are informed, actively participate in their communities, and have healthy civic dispositions. It is our goal for schools to support youth in their civic development through the equity and quality of civic learning experiences and organizational supports that sustain democratic practices in schools. Over the past year, we have worked to redefine Democracy Schools indicators and created a new assessment rubric that will be launched statewide in August. This strategic redesign of the Democracy Schools Initiative is shaping the integration of our grantmaking with key elements of Democracy Schools, where grant partners will be able to support the needs identified from Democracy Schools.

Our first strategy supports teachers to strengthen the proven practices of civic learning (Foundational Civic Knowledge, Discussion of Current and Controversial Issues, Simulations of Democratic Processes, Service Learning/Informed Action, and Extracurricular Activities) that connect with the lived experiences and identities of students. Teachers also need support to better integrate media literacy skills with these proven practices of civic learning. This support for teachers can occur both through external providers as well as through the Democracy Schools Network. This strategy is one that directly addresses inequities that exist with the quantity and quality of civic learning experiences in school, as teacher professional development ensures that our educators can help cultivate the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that our students need to be effective and engaged citizens.

Our second strategy supports school leadership to advance a commitment to the civic mission of schools, dedicating resources to sustain the vision and ensure all students have equitable access to civic learning. The McCormick Foundation has developed an Administrator Academy to support K-12 administrators implementing the new Illinois social science standards and civics course requirements, and the Democracy Schools Network has convened administrators for intentional professional development. As public schools were created with the purpose of promoting civic ideals, this important work with administrators supports schools to restore their civic mission, which has unfortunately been deprioritized. Supporting school leadership ultimately leads to schools being transformed into democratic spaces.

Our third strategy is to promote student voice in schools both through representation and student media programs. One current partner in this work is Loyola University, who has partnered with Senn and Sullivan High Schools on Chicago’s north side (both Democracy Schools) to operate a storefront news bureau called the RogersEdge Reporter, where high school and college students report hyper-local news in Rogers Park and Edgewater. With less than 1% of CPS high school students enrolled in a journalism class, partnerships like this provide an invaluable resource for schools to strengthen scholastic journalism and promote student voice. Additionally, when there are multiple avenues for student representation in schools, students have further opportunities to develop their civic dispositions. Students are truly practicing democracy in these environments and this positions them to continue these practices into adulthood.

Our fourth strategy is to create partnerships to build democratic school climates and implement Illinois’ school discipline law, Senate Bill (SB) 100. Promoting a positive school climate is very much connected with academic achievement and correlates with building the civic capacities of our students. It also addresses many of the opportunity gaps that exist in schools. SB100 was passed in 2015 with the purpose of reducing racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions, emphasizing restorative practices instead. Our work in this area directly meets the implementation needs of this important law by supporting teachers, administrators, and student leadership.

Our final strategy supports national and statewide field-building efforts to strengthen youth civic learning and engagement. On a national level, the CivXNow coalition has developed a national nonpartisan strategy that establishes civic education as a priority in preserving American democracy and supports the implementation of effective policies and practices to ensure that students engage in high quality civic education for generations to come. At the state level, the McCormick Foundation has been advocating for the passage of a Middle School Civics bill and plans to mobilize support for professional development for educators to meet the demands of this bill.

These investments in school-based civic learning opportunities will promote equitable access and stronger civic engagement outcomes for students, connect educators with the lived experiences and identities of students, and transform schools to be more democratic spaces. If you work supports these strategies in the Chicagoland area, we invite you to participate in an open application process for grants over $50,000 to engage youth civically with a deadline of October 1st.


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