We’ll never forget last year, when survivors of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, became leaders instead of victims, taking their cause all the way to Washington, D.C., and garnering national attention.
But how can all of America’s students become sufficiently equipped and knowledgeable about important issues to get involved and make a difference within and beyond their communities?
A recent Brookings Institution report notes that students regularly discuss civics issues in class but have few opportunities for community engagement and participation in our democracy.
The public high school I attended — River Bluff High School in Lexington, South Carolina — has one answer. Civics education was incorporated into daily learning, allowing students to gain the ability to effect positive change, through a model of teaching and learning that embeds civics education in daily schoolwork to solve real-world problems.
At River Bluff and more than 150 schools that implement the EL Education model, students experience “expeditions,” weeks- or months-long “deep dives” into a topic, which culminate in final projects that contribute to their communities. Students collaborate on original research, interview experts and present their findings in public settings.
In my junior year of high school, we explored educational inequity in South Carolina. We started by watching the film “The Corridor of Shame: The Neglect of South Carolina’s Rural Schools.” The experience was transformational for me. I was shocked at the conditions of schools in my state. Just minutes down the road, schools looked far different than mine.
My classmates and I then examined the impact of Abbeville County School District, et al. v. The State of South Carolina, a class-action lawsuit in which districts sued the state for failing to provide minimally adequate education.
We met with lawyers and legislators about the Abbeville County case. I wanted to learn more. With my school’s help, I interned at one of the law firms that worked on the case and visited rural South Carolina schools to meet with students whose schools were part of the lawsuit.
I visited schools in my own county that were a stark contrast to my high school. Teacher shortages, lack of school supplies, and dilapidated buildings were commonplace. For my senior project at River Bluff, I founded the nonprofit “Student Space” to lobby for educational equality in South Carolina. The work caught the attention of the State Superintendent and the State Education Oversight Committee, and my classmates and I had an opportunity to provide feedback on proposals, including our state’s plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act.
My high school ignited within me a passion for educational equity, and it gave me the knowledge, skills, tools and opportunity to work for positive change. River Bluff is not unique in putting civics education and community service at the center of daily learning.
At my school and other EL Education schools across the country, students learn — and learn to serve — through direct engagement with local community issues.
Governments and schools can provide education that enables students to engage in their communities and contribute to a better world.
Today, this is more important than ever. A knowledgeable and participating citizenry is critical to preserving our democracy and achieving educational equity in America.
This story on student activism and civics education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Merrit Jones is a student at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill and executive director of Student Voice, a student-run nonprofit dedicated to strengthening the student movement by empowering high schoolers to take action on the issues that most affect their education.