Teaching Democracy: How One School Network Has Baked Civics & Activism Into Its DNA — and Produced Graduates Who Are More Likely to Vote

Apr 11, 2019 by

By Kevin Mahnken  –

Can schools save our fractured nation? Backed by groundbreaking research, Democracy Prep is putting civics — and active political participation — at the heart of its educational mission


New York City

Work hard. Go to college. Change the world!

When Democracy Prep students stream into their classrooms each morning, their school motto follows them. It’s written on the blue and gold banners slung in their hallways, alongside packets of graded student work and on rows of university pennants. It peeks up from school-issued planners. And it’s occasionally found on pieces of the school uniform, a variegated ensemble that makes room for branded button-downs, sweatpants, ties, cardigans and vests.

Not every school can boast a mantra, but Democracy Prep chose one that leaves no ambiguity about its mission. Students (referred to as scholars) encounter all the hallmarks of the urban charter school: high expectations, a long school day, stringent disciplinary policies.

But as it has expanded from one Harlem middle school to more than 20 locations across five states, the 13-year-old network has always kept the exclamation point at the end of that third imperative clause. Unique among both charter and district schools, Democracy Prep’s institutional focus lies in preparing kids not just for the rigors of college, but also for the demands of citizenship. Through an emphasis on government and social change, as well as a heavy dose of extracurricular civic involvement, the schools seek to transform K-12 students into future voters, volunteers and activists.

In short, adults who could — and might see it as their duty to — change the world.

“Democracy Prep gives you its coursework so it can prepare you, and you can have the ambition to change the world,” said Herman Amevor, a senior at Democracy Prep Charter High School in Harlem. “We do have an obligation as scholars to be involved in our community, to make our voices heard and make a change.”

Students walk the halls of Democracy Prep Charter High School. (Emmeline Zhao)

Measured by traditional metrics of school quality, the results have been striking. Extensive research released between 2012 and 2015 showed that students at Democracy Prep’s New York schools achieved significant gains in math and literacy comparable to those of students at other high-performing charters. But the schools’ most touted impact has been felt on an entirely non-academic outcome: political participation.

Last spring, the research group Mathematica released a study finding that attending Democracy Prep made students significantly more likely to vote.

At a time when polling shows that most adults can’t name the three branches of government, the study provided hopeful evidence that schools have a role to play in shaping better citizens. Particularly impressive is the fact that Democracy Prep’s exclusively young (its oldest graduates are still in their early 20s) and predominantly minority and low-income student demographic is generally the least likely to participate in elections.

David Campbell, chair of the political science department at Notre Dame, called the Mathematica study “top-notch.”

“It’s big,” he said. “And as these interventions go, on a scale of what we’ve seen other things do — not only in education, but just in general — trying to move the needle on voter turnout is actually a pretty hard thing to do. That’s a big effect.”

continue: Teaching Democracy: How One School Network Has Baked Civics & Activism Into Its DNA — and Produced Graduates Who Are More Likely to Vote | The 74

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