ROSELAND — Midterm elections are Tuesday, and in Illinois these will be the first major elections since the state began rolling out a plan to mandate civics courses in public high schools, with the aim of increasing youth civic engagement and voter turnout.
Before HB 4025 was signed by Bruce Rauner in 2015, Illinois was one of 10 states that did not require a civics course for high school graduation.
“On measures of [young people] voting regularly in local elections, we’re 47th in the country. On levels of social capital— so talking to neighbors or working with neighbors to solve problems in the community—we are in the bottom 10 percent of states on those measures,” according to Shawn Healy, director of the democracy program at the McCormick Foundation, who helped research and write the bill. (Disclosure: McCormick Foundation is a funder of City Bureau.)
Now, high schoolers must take at least a one-semester course that focuses on government institutions, the discussion of current and controversial issues, service learning and simulations of the democratic process. The law also created the Civic Education Assistance Fund to provide funding for a civics course and professional development training to assist teachers who were new to teaching civics.
Schools began implementing the law during the 2016-2017 school year. Chicago Public Schools created a curriculum they dubbed “Participate,” which asks students to think critically about power dynamics in democracy, such as the ways citizens can hold institutions accountable.
Fenger Academy High School senior Sheila Hatchett, 17, credited her “Participate” civics class with opening her mind to the importance of voting and on considering perspectives different from her own.
Before taking the class, she said, she felt as though voting was pointless. After registering voters with her civics classmates and serving as an election judge for the primary election this past March, she described witnessing and feeling the power that casting a vote could afford.
“[My brother] was a senior and he had just turned 18 so he was about to vote … He felt like he was actually changing [something] and that’s when it started hitting closer to home. Like, what if I can make other kids in my neighborhood feel this way or what if I could make my sister feel like that?” Hatchett said.
Hatchett became a voting recruiter in her family—convincing her mom and stepdad, who previously didn’t vote, to get out to the polls and cast their ballots.
“I love to see people feel like they’re empowered,” she said. “Because when people empower me, I can’t help but spread the love and the joy.”
Teacher training is also a large part of CPS’s program to expand its civics requirements. Many have never taught civics before and those who have may not be accustomed to the ongoing discussions with students that the curriculum encourages.
Each year, the department trains a cohort of about 75 civics teachers who have adopted the “Participate” curriculum, which is used by 89 of Chicago’s 93 public high schools. The remaining four teach their own civics curriculum.
Dustin Voss has taught social sciences, including government and civics, at Fenger for nine years, and he’s one of the many teachers who helped create “Participate.”
“Something that I can report that many students have said to me and to other civics teachers is that they hadn’t really liked their social science or history classes,” Voss said. “They didn’t even really know what civics was, but in the ‘Participate’ curriculum, they find that the teacher and the community want to hear their voice.”
That focus on student voices and the teacher’s role in enabling it is by design, according to Heather Van Benthuysen, head of CPS’s department of social science and civic engagement.
“In training for the course, we focus a lot on student voice and ownership and agency. With that comes a lot of learning around culturally relevant instruction, making sure that teachers understand things like adultism [behaviors by adults that alienate young people],” she said.
While the professional support can help civics educators develop their practice, some challenges remain. Time commitment is one barrier: These new trainings take teachers away from the classroom throughout the year, Van Benthuysen said. In a district with thousands of teachers, she added, it can also be hard to communicate to all schools that these professional learning opportunities even exist.
There are also concerns about reaching those teachers who may view the civics course as yet another top-down demand.
In some places, Voss said, the civics course is treated as yet another unfunded mandate that non-civics teachers must accommodate.
Exempt from the state law is the city’s charter schools, which are not required to teach civics, according to Van Benthuysen. Charter schools may reach out to the department for the curriculum and the corresponding professional learning, which some have, but they are not obligated to.
Although the department is not required to partner with every school, nor is it accountable for the effectiveness of each high school’s civics education, it does collect student evaluation survey data for teachers to identify where they are succeeding and what may need improvement.
“But, ultimately,” Van Benthuysen said, “teachers are professionals and we want to make sure that they have room and space to make decisions in a way that’s best for students because teachers know their students best.”
For his part, Voss is optimistic about November election turnout when he considers the changes he has seen among his students. In the early years of his teaching career there, he said, very few students believed that voting made a difference in their communities. Now, the majority of his students express an interest in voting. In the 2017-18 school year, Voss and his students registered close to 90 percent of eligible Fenger student voters, as well as many of their family and community members. Hatchett, his former student, is looking forward to voting in the upcoming February municipal election, only two months after turning 18.
The department is also gearing up to engage all CPS schools, K-12, in the electoral process this fall, and will again partner with Chicago Votes to host Parade to the Polls events across the city.
While voting is one desired effect of the department’s civics curriculum, it can also be much more than that.
“I don’t think that we can limit our civics curriculum to voting or government,” Voss said. “I think students need opportunities to practice using their power in other ways and to examine things from the current events or of the past ways that people have sought to change things when the power of state authority isn’t necessarily open to them.”
This report was produced by City Bureau, a Chicago-based civic journalism lab.