Taking democracy to the streets

While just about everyone thinks American students need better civics education, brawling breaks out pretty quickly when states try to delineate content. How is power divided between state governments and the national government? What kind of protection for religious liberty does the constitution actually offer?

So I was intrigued by an article about civics education at Harlem’s Democracy Prep charter school. Active citizenship defines the school’s mission, and by active they mean getting the kids out on the street. From the article:

On a sunny Tuesday in June, the streets of Harlem, New York City, are filled with the usual midday crowd hustling in and out of subway stations and eating hurried lunches. One thing they are most decidedly not doing is voting. And this is a disappointment for a small army of schoolchildren dressed in bright yellow shirts.

The students in yellow attend one of the charter schools in the Democracy Prep Public Schools network and, with the help of their teachers and several parent volunteers, are waging a Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaign. The occasion is the Democratic congressional primary for New York’s 15th Congressional District, which encompasses upper Manhattan (including Columbia University, Washington Heights, and Harlem) and surrounding locales. . .

Harlem, with its tradition of producing highly visible and powerful political figures, provides a fitting backdrop for Democracy Prep, a network of seven public charter schools with a civic mission at its core. Democracy Prep’s founder and superintendent is Seth Andrew, an energetic former teacher born and raised in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Andrew has deep political roots. As a teenager, he served as a congressional page after being nominated by Rangel; while still a student at Brown University, he ran for election to the Rhode Island state house.

Andrew’s passion for civic activism and academic rigor are at the center of Democracy Prep’s model. The network’s motto—“Work hard. Go to college. Change the world!”—couples the “no-excuses” charter school movement’s emphasis on student achievement with a decidedly civic focus. This pairing is in the schools’ DNA; students and parents are exposed to an explicit and unapologetic emphasis on civic education from day one. As Andrew quipped at a 2012 event at the Brookings Institution, “We are called Democracy Prep, not Generic Prep.”[1]

The fact that Democracy Prep is a charter school is crucial to its civic mission. Andrew views charter schooling as an ideal venue for experimenting with exactly how to teach citizenship. When it comes to civic education, Andrew argues, “The charter sector can start to model best practices . . . and really take risks”—such as sending a fleet of students to the streets of Harlem in a GOTV campaign. And if charters unearth new approaches, there is “no reason a traditional district school can’t also do it.”


I always told my government students that I’d forgive them – reluctantly – if they forgot the details of how a bill becomes a law .  . . but I’d come back and haunt them if they failed to vote. So I rather like this model.

What do you think?

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