Preparing our youth to be college, career, and community ready

Our democracy has a major crisis.  The spirit of working together to solve our most pressing problems has been colored by economic self-interest. We need to reinvigorate our public schools with to prepare youth both for democracy broadly and to promote their commitment and capacity to help support societal improvement in their communities and beyond.  

For the engagement of our youth and for the health of our democracy, our schools need to turn their attention to their civic mission.  In other words, we must prepare students to be not just "college and career ready" but "college, career, and community ready."

When I think about the concept, it brings to mind students who are informed and supported to interact and influence the structures that govern them. It brings to mind students who are prepared to raise their voice on issues that impact their lives and to understand how those voices can be felt by those in power, in government, within schools and community.

Often, with good intention, civic education involves a small segment of our student population, typically those on the "leadership track", or those in affluent communities from more highly-resourced schools. The unintended consequence of these practices, often deeply steeped in school tradition and culture, is the continued alienation of poor students, students of color and “at-risk” student populations.  It is our responsibility as educators and leaders to support all youth to bring their unique skills, experiences, and voice -- so that they can have an active role in the structures that govern them.  Our schools and communities benefit greatly from this kind of engagement.

When provided with opportunities to connect classroom learning with authentic learning experiences (moving beyond mock trials and mock elections), students are more engaged and retain more of what they learned. Students who are “community ready” have an understanding of the institutional structures that impact their lives as well as a sense of their own agency in addressing them.  

ACOE's Youth Participatory Action Research program and Oakland's Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age initiative are just two examples of how this can be accomplished, bridging the divide between classroom instruction, student empowerment, and community life.  Each of these approaches connect the classroom to an accessible, authentic type of civic engagement for students. One need only think of the incredible “civics lesson” learned by students in the civil rights movement; translate that to today’s young leaders in Ferguson MO, and here at home in the Bay Area where students are using skills they’ve learned to make a difference in their schools and communities today.

When we provide students with opportunities to discuss things that matter to them, to learn how laws that affect them are put into place, to understand the systems that govern their lives in ways that make meaning, are engaging, and to the extent possible, engage them in action - we are doing our jobs as educators and adult leaders preparing the next generation.

L. Karen Monroe
Alameda County Superintendent of Schools