Spotlight

Demonstrating Citizenship to Graduate From High School

by GEORGE H. WOOD

Public schools are, in Sen. John Glenn’s words, “democracy’s personnel department.” But what personnel department would leave all its training to an occasional class or assembly? That seems to be the approach most schools take when it comes to this, their most important mission — preparing our young people to become active and engaged citizens.

At Federal Hocking High School, a school with 360 students in rural Appalachian Ohio, we pride ourselves on the fact that not only is preparing young people for active democratic citizenship part of our mission statement, it is part of daily school life.

For the past two decades, we have engaged students in real decision making and demonstrations of citizenship to enable them to take up the mantle of citizenship after graduation. This has included students having an equal say in the recommendation of staff for hiring, students serving on all-school committees including site-based management, students managing all student affairs and events through student trustees, students rewriting the handbook each year, and even students serving as ex-officio members of our school board.

Healthy Debates
Having students in such roles and with such responsibility is often hard for district administrators and their school boards to accept. What if the students make a mistake? Aren’t we letting the inmates run the prison? Are they responsible enough to take on these adult roles?

It has not always been easy to gain administrative support for the experiences in democracy we provide for our students. In fact, when the students put their right to have a say in the hiring of staff in a student constitution for school board approval, it set off a two-year debate about the student handbook before the board finally approved it.

This debate proved to be healthy for the school district and perhaps illustrates how district administrators can support schools in providing genuine practice with democracy for future citizens. In response to school board concerns, a local lawyer with expertise in school and constitutional law was drafted to examine our form of student government and the role students play. He interviewed students, faculty, board members and district administrative staff. Public forums were held at the school to discuss how to prepare young people for their role as citizens. In the end, the consultant and superintendent presented a report to the local board validating the experiences the students were having and the processes in use.

All of this led to the campaign by students to gain seats on our school board. Realizing how important the board is in determining what goes on in their lives, students researched board membership and developed a proposal for electing two nonvoting student members to the board. Their report included examples from other districts, as well as a summary of Ohio law indicating the board is permitted to make room for ex-officio members. After months of debate and discussion, the first student members took their seats on the board in fall 2005.

Personal Demonstrations
Students at Federal Hocking High School prepare a portfolio of their work that they present in May to qualify for graduation. Each part of the portfolio is directly linked to the school’s mission statement, with one of the three sections being “Demonstrations of Active Citizenship.” To graduate, students must show active participation in their school and community.

Each year students present their portfolios to a panel of faculty who judge whether they are ready to graduate. In spring 2007, many of the portfolio presentations focused on the campaign students had waged to land a seat on the local school board. One of the students who was elected by her peers to serve reflected on the experience:

“I never knew what a school board did, let alone think about being on one. But now, after a year of serving, it is clear that board members do more than just buy bread or buses. They choose the people who educate us, figure out how to fund what we get to do and hold ultimate authority over the rules in the school.
Democracy, I have found out, is not just voting for president. It is the hard, everyday work of everyday people making our communities better places to live. It is local folks, like those on our board, that make a difference. And now we get to make a difference as well.”

If schools are to live up to their job of filling the posts of citizen, it is experiences such as the ones at Federal Hocking that will best prepare our children for this role. I think about this every year in late May when I stand on the stage and shake some 100 sweaty hands of young adults whom we are graduating on that day.
They are about to take their place as citizens in the most powerful nation on the face of the earth, and our high school is the last common experience they will share. If they are to make good decisions about paving our streets, taxing ourselves and choosing the leaders of the nation, it is vital that schools provide them with the tools to do this. And it is the responsibility of district leadership to make the space for every school to do this.

George Wood is principal of Federal Hocking Middle/High School in Stewart, Ohio. He also serves as executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy. E-mail: george.wood@earthlink.net