October 25, 2007 — Vol. 43, No. 11
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Hub students call for more engaging civics classes

Yawu Miller

Victor Martinez is well aware that he’s not your average Boston high school student.

“I’ve learned how to help my community, how the government works, how to speak in public, how to use a power analysis to solve problems, how to turn out people to vote, how to organize events such as a candidate forum and how to work as a team,” said the 17-year-old New Mission High School student, testifying before a panel of city councilors and school department officials.

His speech, delivered with clear elocution and a persuasive tone, held the attention of the officials, students and community activists who turned out in City Hall’s Iannella Chamber for a hearing on a civics curriculum for Boston’s schools.

Martinez and other students addressed the topic before City Councilors Chuck Turner, Felix Arroyo, Michael Flaherty, Sam Yoon, Rob Consalvo, Michael Ross and John Tobin.

The students, most of whom work with the Hyde Square Task Force, brought their ideas for school improvement to the officials who have the power to implement changes to the school curriculum.

They also brought compelling arguments.

“Although my fellow co-workers and I have been taught and experienced all these things, I feel like every student in the Boston Public School system deserves the same,” Martinez said. “I’m one of the lucky students out of the 57,000 students in the school system. Doesn’t every child deserve to learn these skills?”

The teens are calling on the school department curriculum designer to work with students to design a civics curriculum that uses current events as classroom material.
They are asking for a pilot program to be implemented in the ’08 school year.

But the skills and lessons Martinez and his fellow students brought to City Hall were put to the test, as a school department representative responded to their proposal by reiterating what the school department is already doing to teach civics in the eighth grade.

“We feel it is a way of getting young people active and connected to their community,” said Sonya Brookings Sanitaleses, deputy superintendent for teaching and learning.

Sanitaleses also mentioned that the school department is working to increase the availability of Advanced Placement government courses across the school system.

Her remarks, which came after six teens spoke about the inadequacy of the eighth-grade civics curriculum, drew a measured rebuke from Hyde Square Task Force Executive Director Claudio Martinez.

“There were a lot of mixed messages about the Boston Public School system’s willingness to address this issue seriously,” he said, commenting on Sanitaleses’ testimony.

Claudio Martinez stressed that students are calling for a curriculum that piques their interest in government, something the students say the eighth-grade curriculum has failed to do.

“It’s not about instruction,” he said. “What we need to do first is to find ways to engage these young people. What they are telling us is that this is something they are passionate about.”

Civics has not been a graduation requirement in Boston since 1970. The teens point to the lack of education as a leading cause of civic disengagement among youth. Back in 1972, 50 percent of people ages 18 to 29 voted in the presidential election. By 1996, less than one-third did.

The students at the hearing argued that by tying current events to history, a civics curriculum could make both voting and school more interesting.

“When I think of what a civics class could look like, I envision a teacher standing in front of a class, with all of the students engaged in a conversation where current events are being discussed and then related back to history,” said Gabi Leyton-Nolan, a 15-year-old Boston Latin student.

Sanitaleses said adding a new course to the system’s required curriculum would mean the schools would have to drop another required course.

“We can consider it, but the question would have to be what else would have to come off the plate,” she said.

Moriah Smith, a Boston Latin School student and student representative to the Boston School Committee, advised the school department to offer classes that keep students engaged.

“There are many classes that many students wouldn’t mind missing,” she said. “But it really says something that students are asking for this class.”

Teen activists and their supporters filled City Hall’s Iannella Chamber for a hearing on implementing a civics curriculum in Boston Public Schools for 11th- and 12th-graders. Civics hasn’t been a graduation requirement in Boston since 1970. (Yawu Miller photo)

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