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Creating capital citizens: Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools and civic education

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

Cesar Chavez Public Charter_Help the Homeless_Source Cesar ChavezFor our latest case study in the “Teaching Citizenship in Charter Schools” series, Richard Lee Colvin, an education journalist and author of Tilting the Windmills: School Reform, San Diego, and America’s Race to Reform Public Education (out this month from Harvard Education Press), profiles the César Chávez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy in Washington, DC. The mission of the charter network—which has four schools located in the nation’s capital and serves 1,4000 students, nearly all of whom are African Americans or Latinos from low-income families—is to “empower students by helping them both succeed in college and learn to use their knowledge of government, public policy, and effective advocacy techniques to become ‘civic leaders committed to bettering our communities, country, and world.'”

Colvin begins his essay by recounting one example of students getting ready for both college and citizenship:

Chukwuma Isebor, an 18-year-old high school student whose father emigrated to the United States from Nigeria for college, says that prior to his senior year he was cynical and distrustful “of the government and the way it treated lower-income citizens and minorities.” Yet, there he was in December, arguing with two classmates before a panel of three judges that the patriotic spirit of the nation’s founders could be revived and the quality of American democracy improved if citizens participated more actively.

Chukwuma, Joseline Barajas, and Chyna Winchester are seniors at the César Chávez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy campus on 12th Street Southeast in Washington, DC, 11 blocks east of the Capitol. They offered up their thoughts on citizenship and democracy as they participated in the annual “We the People” competition at their school. The nationwide competition, sponsored by the Center for Civic Education, tests students’ knowledge of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights in a congressional hearing-style format. Teams research an opening statement that responds to questions on one of the competition’s six themes and then answer queries from a panel of judges. The goal of the competition is to promote knowledge and appreciation of the Constitution as the foundation of democracy in the United States.

The three students and their classmates had spent several weeks preparing for the competition during American Government class, which all Chávez students are required to take and pass to graduate. The previous day, they had practiced their statements and answered questions posed to them by their teacher, Ayo Magwood, an economist who formerly worked as a researcher at the World Bank. She had urged all of them to include more specific illustrations and examples from contemporary politics, policies, and US Supreme Court cases. “Look for cases where executive power was checked or where federal power was checked,” she told one group. “Don’t worry about the Articles of Confederation,” she told another group. “Get to the Constitution and current examples.”

When it was their turn to present their argument, Chukwuma, Joseline, and Chyna settled quickly and nervously into their seats at the front of the crowded classroom. The judges were a consultant with Deloitte, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, and an enthusiastic former member of the US Coast Guard. The students were to discuss whether they agreed or disagreed with the idea that American democracy could be improved through the renewal of political institutions and citizen activism.

Joseline, a bright and outgoing student who takes care of her chronically ill mother and three younger siblings, was the first to speak. She said her team agreed that engaged citizenship and “a healthy skepticism of power can help keep our democracy strong because it can lead to people participating more and acting upon things they would like changed.” At the beginning of the school year, Joseline had thought the government class would be boring. But much to her surprise, it turned out to be her favorite-so much so that she began sharing the civic knowledge she was learning with her mother, who was preparing to take her American citizenship test. Her mother also got hooked on the class and eagerly looked forward to her daughter’s reports.

Next was Chukwuma, whose main interest when he came to Chávez was basketball. In his statement, he cited the work of Meira Levinson, a Harvard political philosopher whose latest book, No Citizen Left Behind (Harvard University Press, 2012), examines the gap in civic engagement and empowerment between low-income minority students and their more affluent peers. It is a problem he and his classmates, who are all African American or Hispanic, relate to, Chukwuma told the judges. Last fall, he was among a group of Chávez students who fanned out into the Capitol Hill neighborhood to register voters and found deep apathy.

Finish reading Colvin’s case study here, and then check out the rest of the studies in our “Teaching Citizenship in Charter Schools” series.