Creating Partnerships for Effective Youth Civic Learning

Back to Summer 2022: Volume 111, Number 2

By Jan Brennan

Why partner in youth civic learning?

Developing youth as active and informed community members offers tremendous value. An informed and active citizenry is fundamental to American democracy. Yet the decades-long decline in civic literacy continues, with youth demonstrating decreased knowledge of civic history, government structures and functions, geography, and economics. This decline is reflected in lower levels of volunteerism, participation in community organizations and other indicators of civic engagement. While there have been encouraging increases in youth voting in recent national elections, those aged 18 to 24 continue to vote at the lowest rate of any age group.

Engaged, Applied and Actionable
Civic learning can take many forms, with research demonstrating that applied civic learning opportunities that actively engage students in informed action have the most beneficial impacts. The benefits of participation in engaged civic learning experiences extend beyond the individual youth participants, to improve a broad range of youth, school, and community outcomes. It is important to note that there are significant racial and socio-economic biases in both the provision of engaged civic learning opportunities and levels of civic literacy, so this is also an opportunity to increase the equity of civic education in your community.

For youth, civic learning develops transferable twenty-first century skills, including information and media literacy, communications, teamwork and collaboration, critical thinking, and problem-solving. Young people better understand economic and democratic principles as they see them in action. Research shows hands-on civic experiences support workforce development, allowing students to experience professional environments and real-world problem-solving. Civic learning also supports youth character and ethical development as well encouraging a greater respect for diverse perspectives and cultural differences.

Schools benefit from community engagement in civic learning through an enhanced school climate with stronger attachment to learning, better relationships between student peers and teachers, and improved school safety and inclusion. Students who participate in community-based civic learning have fewer behavioral and discipline issues and higher grades, lower absenteeism, and higher graduation rates.

Communities benefit from youth civic learning through volunteer labor and increased participation and engagement. Students develop the civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions to be effective participants in the civic life of their communities. Applied civic learning typically has a service component, directly benefiting the community. These youth also show increased interest in, and commitment to, keeping abreast of current events, taking informed civic action, and voting. The impacts of applied civic learning are long-term, supporting increased civic engagement throughout the lives of young participants.

The emphasis on applied and service learning is reflected in state education standards. The Framework for Social Studies state standards recommends employing an inquiry arc in which students take informed action. Similarly, Next Generation Science Standards are based on an inquiry model. Many states, from Nebraska to Arizona, Hawaii, to Massachusetts call for civic learning to actively engage students in addressing real-world community concerns. 

Plan Student Civic Learning Access

Local government, civic and nonprofit organizations are well positioned to partner in providing engaged, applied civic learning opportunities for youth. Local issues have greater relevance to young people and are more easily connected to their personal experiences. There is also greater opportunity for youth to have meaningful impact on civic issues at a local level.

Real-world civic learning requires youth access to staff, programs, meetings and events, facilities, data, and information. Start with the parameters of your educational partners. Outline the learning calendar to identify the classroom schedule and the monthly timeframes, days of the week and times of the day where civic learning partnerships fit into the schedule. Younger students will have significant constraints, while older students may be able to attend evening and weekend public meetings and activities.

Map current opportunities for student civic access against the partner’s educational schedule to determine the depth and length of potential civic learning partnerships. Identify opportunities for leadership, operational and program staff to:

  • Interact with students, either in-person or via live remote
  • Provide access to organizational facilities and tours
  • Offer access to internal and external meetings and public forums
  • Offer opportunities for supervised participation in service activities.

Identify areas in which youth civic access is limited and expand access where possible. This might require altering the timing of meetings or events, adding new remote participation opportunities, or allocating specific times for staff to be available for student engagement programming.

Assign a staff member to coordinate civic learning engagement. Partnering for civic learning requires investment, but it has offsetting rewards. With limited time and resources, schools and teachers are challenged to identify community partners, develop relationships, outline, and implement projects and assess programs for impact and improvement. Providing leadership to develop, implement and track civic learning partnerships could be instrumental to success.

Sharing timely and relevant data and information on local civic issues is another key opportunity to support applied youth civic learning. Information helps youth understand community needs and service networks. Outline the types of public data and information that could be made available to youth to advance their civic learning.

Youth Civic Learning Partnership Opportunities
Consider a variety of ways in which your organization could partner to support youth civic learning across a continuum of opportunities.

Review and Input Projects
Reviewing and proposing ideas for improvement is a relatively easy way to partner to provide real-world civic learning to youth. Students might review anything from youth programming offered by a city’s parks and recreation department, to proposed transportation routes and schedules. Students may employ knowledge and skills across the whole spectrum of academic areas: conducting historical and demographic research, applying math skills to calculations, calling on geographic skills to map services, and applying concepts from economics to psychology. At the same time, students are building soft skills as they interact with community organizations and members, conduct interviews, collaborate with student peers, build cultural competency, and more.

Youth mapping is another example of input-focused civic learning. Youth collect observations and data and map that information for a specific geographic area. This can be an opportunity to use geographic information systems (GIS) and global positioning systems (GPS) tools and incorporate photos into the maps. Mapping projects often identify current community conditions, from air quality to sidewalk cracks, and the different types and amounts of resources available in an area. Examples range from youth mapping bicycle accidents and identifying Healthy Lifestyle Opportunities for Families in North Philadelphia, to identifying where to place Atlanta’s next Local Game Store and broad community mapping such as Map My Maryville (Arizona).  The Student Street Design Challenge and The Action Mapping Project are good examples that focus on community safety, with students mapping their routes to school and hangouts, showing areas where they feel comfortable and areas they avoid out of safety concerns. The City of Vancouver offers a Youth Community Mapping Toolkit to make this an on-going project.

Local government, civic and nonprofit organizations gain from these applied youth civic learning projects. The students gather and analyze data that staff may not have time to complete, help to visualize civic data, and offer valuable insights into community solutions from a youth perspective.

Civic Learning Programs
Consider hosting your own youth civic learning programs. Alignment with youth academic standards is the greatest challenge when designing civic partner programs, but there are many proven models from which to draw.

There are numerous national and regional organizations with existing programs that could be adopted or funded in your community. Reach out to organizations like Mikva Challenge, Generation Citizen, Alliance for Youth Action, Youth Service America and the National Youth Leadership Council to learn about existing models and programs with which you might partner. The Center for Civic Education administers the well-respected youth public policy program Project Citizen. You can also find many existing resources from organizations such as iCivics.

Within higher education, organizations such as Campus Compact and Civic Nation promote engaged civic and service opportunities and you will find that many campuses have a civic engagement or service learning office that offer structured partnerships. Examples include the Service Learning and Civic Engagement office at California State University San Marcos, University of Georgia’s Office of Service-Learning, St. Petersburg College Center for Civic Learning and Community Engagement, and the Community & Civic Engagement program at Mesa County Community College in Arizona. The EPIC Network offers a broad model for partnerships between universities, local governments and communities.

Citizen academies can enable students to learn about local government operations and services, engage with elected officials and government employees, understand the use of tax funds, gain an appreciation for local services, and learn about opportunities for involvement. Law enforcement agencies frequently hold academies specifically for youth.

In similar programs, Rancho Cordova, California, hosts Summer at City Hall, an internship program for youth conducted with a nonprofit youth organization and the Folsom Cordova Unified School District. The Sacramento Municipal Utilities District, The Port of Hueneme and the Napa County Resource Conservation District all participate in a Governments Engaging Youth program that pairs in-school civic instruction with after school and summer work-based learning projects.

Another opportunity to expand the impact of your support for youth civic engagement is to design further civic learning into the project. Rather than making their state capitol visit a one-and-done learning opportunity, in Bristol, Florida, fifth graders prepare and present a video documentary about the structures and functions of local, state, and federal government to younger students. 

Civic Service Learning
Service learning is a common practice in civic education and development. It combines several compelling components: applied, real-world learning, development of twenty-first century workforce skills, character and socio-emotional growth, and concrete contributions to community benefit. 

Service learning takes a variety of forms, ranging from placement of individual students into roles within an organization or community, to collective student projects completed by groups of three to thirty. Start by identifying research or projects that would benefit your organization’s ability to provide community services and programs. Don’t underestimate the capabilities and contributions of young people.

Here are creative community service-learning projects undertaken through student’s partnerships:

  • Websites and social media
    Youth can develop the website and social media presence of the organization or community.
    This Pinterest tourism promotion by students in Banff, Alberta, includes photos and information on local attractions, parks and recreation, historical background, local legends and leaders, and places to shop and eat aligned with local ingredients and arts.
  • Multi-media
    Youth have undertaken video projects ranging from documenting their neighborhoods to recording and creating a time lapse of a large development project. Informational videos by students highlight local heroes, community events, and business openings. Videos might also support resident communications, from seasonal safety tips and road construction alerts to “top 10 things to do in the community this week,” and volunteer opportunities.
  • Youth Outreach
    Youth have great ideas about when and where to connect with youth community members, and the types of messaging and platforms to which youth respond. This might encompass creating a survey or feedback form on your website to increase youth input, social media channels or messaging targeting youth, and visual or performing arts efforts that appeal to youth. Students might develop talking points on programs or establish a youth speakers bureau.
  • Surveys and opinion polls
    Youth can generate information on resident or youth opinions, from local development projects to how to prioritize budget funding, community arts and recreation opportunities, or public transit.
  • Condition assessments
    With a little training, youth can conduct condition assessments, from sidewalks to home repair.

While a single program partnership between a community organization or government and a school or teacher can be effective, the best return is a sustainable long-term partnership. This allows the partners to hone their collaboration, such as ensuring students are properly prepared for service, and facilitates extended projects that students repeat or further each semester.

Here are examples of on-going community civic learning partnerships:

  • Rutgers University/City of Camden, New Jersey
    Exploring Careers in Biology is a course offered by the Department of Biology, Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University. The course helps students explore biological science careers through service learning at diverse workplaces. At those workplaces, students gain experiential service learning through community service projects benefitting the city of Camden, New Jersey.
  • Orange County (California) Civic Learning Partnership provides resources and awards the State Seal for Civic Engagement recognition in a program which encourages schools to increase opportunities for civic learning. The program also allows students to earn Civic Learning Pathway certificates for meeting grade-level civic goals.

Showcase Civic Learning

Make youth civic learning more impactful by showcasing youth civic projects and recommendations. Options include:

  • Facilitate youth presentations to city or organizational staff and leaders.
  • Facilitate youth presentations at public meetings, from school board to city council.
  • Host a public, science-fair-style Youth Civic Showcase at which youth from across the community will highlight their civic learning and action projects. Arrange for elected officials, community and youth leaders to tour the showcase and interact with the youth.
  • Pass a resolution recognizing the civic learning and action work taking place in your community.
  • Create and award recognition to schools, classes or individual youth who conduct meaningful civic learning and action projects. As one model, the state of California offers students a State Seal of Civic Engagement endorsement on their transcripts.

Tips for Effective Civic Learning Community Partnerships

  • Engage students at all education levels, from preschool to post-secondary.
  • Engage students across the disciplines, from social studies to math and science.
  • Ensure the project is based on mutual benefit. Students should be learning, not just volunteering. Having students clean up a local park is volunteer work. When they are also tracking and mapping the debris in the park to recommend placement of trash cans and dog bags and present their recommendations to policymakers, that becomes a civic learning experience that serves both students and the community.
  • Align civic learning opportunities with academic standards. Teachers can provide guidance about the knowledge, concepts and skills outlined in standards to ensure the program also drives academic outcomes.
  • Be creative in identifying and including multiple partners to expand perspectives and capacity. Nonprofit youth organizations make good partners, but also consider the business and legal community, media, cultural organizations, advocacy groups and the faith community.
  • Always remain nonpartisan and focus on non-political projects and settings.
  • Be prepared for the school calendar. Partner feedback shows that the disruptions in the schedule were among the greatest challenges if there was not good planning and strong communications.
  • Ensure students are prepared to take advantage of the civic learning opportunities presented. They need to understand behavior in a professional environment and may need to master skills, such as the use of GPS for a mapping project. Meet with teachers to clearly communicate what preparation students will need.
  • Be sensitive to issues around transportation and consider providing bus passes or other support. Transportation is a key barrier to civic participation for both schools and individual students.
  • Consider paid internships. While some youth can volunteer their time, you may exclude low-income youth from participation if there is no compensation for fellowships and out-of-school-time opportunities.
  • Engage the judicial branch, the least understood of our core government institutions.
  • Add teacher professional development as part of your civic learning efforts. This forges strong relationships and helps ensure the success of the learning projects.
  • Highlight and promote your youth civic learning partnership so the community is aware and appreciates these partnerships and their benefits.

Ready to Engage: Preparing the next generation to participate in civic and community life, Chicago Public Schools.
Governments Engaging Youth Toolkit, Institute for Local Government
Appendix 2: Civic Engagement Example Activities, K-12 South Dakota Social Studies educators
From Civic Education to a Civic Learning Ecosystem, Red & Blue Works
What Does Civic Engagement Mean for Local Government?, CivicPlus
Promoting Civic Partnerships, Constitutional Rights Foundation
Civics and Municipal Literacy Projects for Young People, Institute for Local Governments

Jan Brennan is CEO of Forward LLC and a Senior Fellow of the National Civic League.

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