Civics Education Now Law of the Land
By Sophia Eppolito
Boston University Statehouse Program
LOWELL -- After nine years of advocating for civics education measures, members of the Lowell youth advocacy group UTEC saw their work pay off during a recent invitation-only signing.
Gov. Charlie Baker approved the Act to Promote and Enhance Civic Engagement, which requires the state to strengthen civics education requirements by mandating that American history, social sciences and civics be taught in public schools.
The law, signed Nov. 8, also requires public schools to implement student-led civics projects for children in eighth grade and high school, which would encourage young people to work with public officials and learn how their government works.
UTEC Executive Director Gregg Croteau said young people in his organization as well as the group Teens Leading the Way were major contributors in this bill’s nine-year path. They organized lobbying days at the Statehouse, spoke at the bill’s hearings, and worked closely with legislators, Croteau said.
“What was truly, really fun and uplifting to see is the fact that these young people -- this goes back to 2009 when they first selected the campaign -- so we had some of those same young people in the room when the governor signed the bill,” Croteau said.
Carline Almond, 24, who has been campaigning for this bill with UTEC since she was 15, said she was beyond relieved once the bill was signed into law.
“Knowing that civics education is now law, I know that young people have the ability to speak up and talk about the things that directly affect them in their community at school,” Almond said.
Several public school districts in northern Massachusetts have already been making an effort to implement civics education into their curriculum, but say there’s more that needs to be done.
Lowell High School piloted a civics education program during the 2015-2016 school year and now civics is taught as its own required U.S. history elective that students typically take during 11th grade.
“Students work in a class to decide on a topic that’s important to them in the community, they then figure out what can be done about that by doing research,” said Robert DeLossa, Lowell High School’s social studies chair. “Often it involves calling in local politicians or specialists into the classroom then think about ways they can influence decision makers.”
Students’ projects have ranged from setting up food pantries to cleaning up local parks to fighting issues surrounding the state’s prison pipeline. DeLossa said U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., even called and thanked one group of students who were working on a project related to homeless veterans.
“That’s real-time feedback whether it’s from the mayor or it’s from somebody at the state or federal level,” DeLossa said. “That’s huge for our kids just to see that they’ve making a change is important.”
DeLossa said that Lowell public schools expect to be in “full compliance with all aspects” of the law by the end of this school year, once the program is fully implemented in the eighth grade.
“The goal really from the beginning was to voice all of our students, give them the tools to be effective citizens and also to give them a sense of civic ownership and responsibility,” he said. “Which is something we should be doing anyways but this type of civics allows us to do this very, very well.”
North Middlesex Regional High School history teacher Rebecca Jackson said the school currently offers a civics-focused elective course titled Introduction to American Government, but it “only allows a portion of our students to engage in these types of projects.”
“We are hoping to change the course to be an upperclassman course on government and politics that will allow for students approaching voting age to strengthen and develop a deeper understanding of how they can be more active participants in our government and their communities,” Jackson, who is also the school’s history department chair, said in a statement.
Nancy Milligan, the district’s assistant superintendent, said this new law will allow students the opportunity to “make a difference in the community,” but she hopes the state will provide further guidance and direct funding to make the program a reality.
“With the passing of this bill and the passing of the new History and Social Science Standards, it is going to take districts time to unpack and realign expectations while also thinking carefully about purposefully civic action projects for students in Grade 8 and at the high school,” Milligan said in a statement.
Linda Hirsch, Chelmsford Public School’s assistant superintendent, said the district is currently working to embed civics education across multiple grade levels. Chelmsford High School also offers a civics elective for juniors and seniors that focuses on local issues.
“We will continue to incorporate additional authentic civic activities into our current comprehensive social studies programming and find natural links to civics in our other content areas,” Hirsch said in a statement.
Adrien Vega, 19, who has been a part of UTEC for the past year, said that seeing Baker sign the bill was a surreal moment for him.
“I don’t think it hit me at the time, but it was definitely an experience,” he said. “I mean essentially it’s kind of like being a part of history.”