BPS students push for new civics requirement


Gazette Photo by David Taber
City Councilor Chuck Turner (third from left) with youth organizers and Hyde Square Task Force Community Organizer Chrismaldi Vasquez (far right) after an Oct. 18 public hearing on the youths’ proposal to expand the mandatory civics curriculum in Boston Public Schools. Turner exhorted the students to keep pushing for the curriculum, and to “show us how much you want it.”

About 200 students and supporters packed City Council chambers on Oct. 18, demanding additional academic requirements for graduation from high school.

Boston Public Schools (BPS) officials said they appreciated the passionate plea, but would not commit to adding civics courses to the students’ workload.

The hearing, chaired by District 7 Councilor Chuck Turner, who represents Egleston Square, was called to “discuss the value and feasibility of developing required courses in the junior and senior year focused on civic participation broadly defined,” according to the council hearing order.

Mandatory civics was dropped from the BPS curriculum in the 1970s. Starting this year, a civics curriculum was implemented city-wide for eighth-graders. But youth community organizers at the JP-based Hyde Square Task Force (HSTF) say they want more.

“It’s important to have it when you are ready to start voting and go out on your own,” HSTF youth organizer and Snowden International High School sophomore Ada Baéz told the Gazette.

The HSTF youth-led Civics Campaign kicked off a little over a year ago with the goal of convincing the School Committee to commit resources to the development of a mandatory civics curriculum for juniors and seniors. HSTF youths and their allies want pilot classes up and running by next fall.

At the hearing, Anthony Angelo, a student at West Roxbury High School, argued for a multi-year curriculum with a comparative analysis of how math and history are taught. As with math, where arithmetic lays the groundwork for algebra and geometry, simpler lessons, like those describing the significance of the Declaration of Independence, should be built upon to give students a more complete understanding of how democracy works, Angelo said.

In their public comments, BPS officials did not discuss educational theory, instead sticking to bread-and-butter concerns about the challenges of adding new requirements.

The school system is bound by curriculum requirements enforced by the state, and any conversation about adding requirements would have to involve the state Department of Education, said BPS Deputy Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Sonja Brookins Santalises.

“It’s a question of, if this is required, what else becomes not required…what else would have to come off the plate?” Santalises said.

The HSTF youth organizers, by their own admission, have gotten a substantial civics education from their work on the campaign. They rallied like-minded organizations, including Spontaneous Celebrations’ Beantown Society, the Dorchester-based Freedom House, the Boston Student Advisory Council and the Boston Parent Organizing Coalition. They also met with school and city officials.

“I was surprised at how supportive the city councilors were,” HSFT youth organizer Kendra Lara, a senior at JP’s English High School, told the Gazette.

The hearing order was endorsed by the entire council and a number of councilors, including John Tobin, Mike Flaherty, Sam Yoon, Mike Ross, Maureen Feeney and Rob Consalvo, appeared to express their support. State Rep. Jeff Sánchez also attended and testified in support of the curriculum.

Local District 6 Councilor Tobin called the hearing “more of a rally than a forum.”

“Kids today are in a state of ignorance,” Kenneth Emiliano, a former JP resident and senior at Tech Boston High School, testified. “When politicians speak we do not know what they do, where they come from or what they have power over.”

A few city councilors, including Tobin, said they would like to eventually see a civics curriculum adopted statewide. Snowden International High School Junior Oscar Brazobán pointed out, however, that the curriculum would be particularly relevant for school districts serving large immigrant populations.

“A lot of immigrants coming into the city did not grow up in this political world,” Brazobán said.

HSTF youth organizer Brouke Belay, a sophomore at Fenway High School, told the Gazette he envisions a curriculum teaching students the ins and outs of municipal government. “If local parks are a mess, if the sidewalks are cracked or the swing sets are broken, it would teach you the proper channels to deal with those problems,” he said.

Lara said she could also see the classes offering students the opportunity to discuss national and international issues that are relevant to them. She specifically mentioned the Jena Six case in Louisiana, the genocide in Darfur and the war in Iraq as topics such a class could potentially cover.

“My school is 98 percent students of color. It would be good to get insight on things going on with other youth,” Lara said.

BPS officials testified about their enthusiasm for the students’ efforts

“At the risk of sounding paternalistic, I am very proud of all of you,” said BPS Chief Operating Officer James McIntyre, addressing the audience.

But, “We are not prepared to make any specific commitments with relation to a requirement,” McIntyre said.

The school system is working to expand its non-required offerings system-wide, including Advanced Placement government classes, and a program where upper level students can take classes at local colleges, Santalises said.

She also said she welcomes input from students and would like to see mechanisms put in place to improve communication between students and the BPS administration.

“What we need to do is figure out together a systematic way, beyond a meeting or two, to integrate student voice into the way we do business,” Santalises said.

Turner concluded the hearing by urging the youth organizers to keep working.

“The desire to achieve keeps you pushing…you have to show us how much you want it,” he said.

Instead of adjourning the hearing, the councilor declared a recess, saying he would reconvene it in December to see what progress the youth organizers have made.

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