Increasing School Civic Engagement

Dec 23, 2019 by

How can school leaders promote student civic engagement?

Too often school leaders are fixated on the academic results of their students. This is often the result of the pressure placed on them by parents and other stakeholders. However, teaching students about civic engagement is critical to increase understanding, as it provides students with a variety of benefits. Civil engagement can help students become better citizens and raise academic achievement as it leads to increased interest in school.

Civic Engagement

This is a subject that teaches students how they can contribute to their local community in a positive way. It is concerned with supporting schoolchildren to make ‘a social impact’.

Traditionally this type of education occurred in either civic-classes or social studies. This was done through the classic textbook approach. In these classes’ students were taught about their civic duties and how they could make a meaningful impact on society, theoretically. So that they can develop the knowledge and skills to be effective in their community. By teaching students early on about civic engagement they are more likely to be active in society. There are a number of educational benefits, for example, students are taught critical thinking and current political and social issues. Moreover, it appeals to those students who prefer learning from real-life examples’, and this can lead to improved engagement aligned to their learning and even increase retention rates. Moreover, civic engagement helps students form relationships and networks that will advance them personally and professionally and acquire real life leadership skills. Studies have shown that civic engagement can help to close the achievement gap between different groups.

Examples of Civic Engagement

Some examples of student led activism include, cleaning up litter, volunteering, working with the elderly, environmental work and political activism. Increasingly, young people like to become politically active and have taken a leading advocacy role in society for example, in advocating for tighter gun control. However, a school leader is advised to ensure that students do not adopt positions that could be considered overly- political or controversial. 

Action Civics

In order to increase civic engagement, there has been a shift in the teaching of civics. Traditionally the student was taught about knowledge of the constitution and the laws. This was expected to enable the student to be an active participant in civic life.

Action civics can be defined as applied education.  Among the characteristics of this form of learning are

• Giving students room to develop new ideas, to think and to reflect. Students are expected to be independent learners.

• Action civics often involves giving the students a voice. They often decide what projects they want to be involved in.

• Students are not only participants they are advocates and they wish to have a real impact on some issues. A good example of this is the Pathways to Power student advocacy group.

• Celebrate any achievements and learn from their activities.

• Students learn by doing and engaging in collaborative learning. There is a focus on working in groups.

Teaching Action Civics

While recognizing that students must be independent learners, they can only learn in a structured way. A curriculum is required that would allow them to learn the knowledge and the skills to make a social impact. The Mikva Challenge provides a set of activities and lessons to help students to become active in their community, and in the wider society. Mikva action civics involves the following:

•           Issues to action- this is a series of steps taken to identify problems and issues in their community and what must be done to effect meaningful change. During this stage, they can learn how to research a question and develop techniques such as holding focus groups. It is important to encourage students to reflect at all times, during the process.

•           Teach public speaking. Students can learn how to speak in public and analyze the elements of a good speech.

•           Student council. A school committee made up of students can be formed and students can learn how to organize and to find their ‘voice’.

•           Elections- students can run their own elections and referendum.

•           Media training- students are taught to analyze traditional and social media. Then they can work together to develop strategies as to how they can get their message across.

School Leaders and Civic Engagement

To promote civic engagement a school principal can adopt a more democratic leadership style. School principals and superintendents can be more open and communicative. Conflict may occur and a leader should be able to manage any tensions and arguments. Above all, a school leader should be committed to students and their advocacy. Individually, leaders can achieve a balance between the teaching of academic subjects and civic engagement by increasing student voice.

Keywords: student voice, civic engagement, action civics, student advocacy, school leaders

Comment: How can a school leader support student civic engagement in a responsible way? What innovative projects or programs has your school district initiated or wants to introduce with students civic engagement in mind?


Bader, B., Horman, J., & Lapointe, C. (2010). Fostering community and civic engagement in low income multicultural schools through transformative leadership. Exceptionality Education International, 20(2), 25-37. Retrieved from

De La Rose, Shawna (2016) Student-led initiatives tie civic action, advocacy to social studies lesson. Education Drive. Retrieved from

Fusarelli, L. D., Kowalski, T. J., & Petersen, G. J. (2011). Distributive leadership, civic engagement, and deliberative democracy as vehicles for school improvement. Leadership and policy in schools, 10(1), 43-62. Retrieved from

Less, Karen (2019) Civics Education and Student-Driven Civic Action. Edutopia. Retrieved from

Mikva (2018) Mikva Challenge offers a portfolio of Action Civics curricula designed for educators and youth workers to use in developing youth voice and guiding youth to take informed action. Milkva. Retrieved from

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