Middle school program works to combat low civic participation rates

Middle school program works to combat low civic participation rates

Aaron Kelly, Enrique Cruzado, Jamie Brannon and Mariama Jobe, all 7th-grade students at Hamlet Middle School, chose lowering the working age for their civics project.

WOONSOCKET – According to data compiled by the Rhode Island Board of Elections, 48 percent of registered voters turned out to vote during the last election, less than half the adult population.

That number drops as you move down the age groups, with only 26 percent of eligible voters born after 1996 voting in the average general election compared with 77 percent of those born between 1928 and 1945. The number spikes slightly during presidential election years, but not by much. In 2016, only 60 percent of registered voters of any age turned out to cast votes.

The lack of civic participation is a problem many in the state are trying to combat, and in Woonsocket, educators have decided the best solution is to start young.

This year, students at the Woonsocket Middle Schools participated in Generation Citizen, a program designed to promote civic participation among middle and high school students. The program, founded by a group of Brown University students in 2008, uses an action-based curriculum requiring students to not only learn about but to take part in the civic process.

“There’s a traditional way to approach social studies, and it’s really heavily lecture-based,” said Tom Kerr-Vanderslice, executive director of Generation Citizen. “We pull in experiential learning in civics.”

On May 24, the schools hosted a district-wide Civics Day to give 7th- and 8th-grade students the chance to show off their semester-long projects. As part of the project, students chose topics of importance in their community and sat down in groups to develop action plans on how to address them. Topics included bullying, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual assault, tardiness and violence in schools, all reflections of the issues students felt were most pressing in their community.

Students also brainstormed a list of people who might be able to influence the situation and wrote phone and email scripts for how they would reach out to those individuals. On May 13, they brought their projects to the Statehouse for a statewide civics celebration that included the chance to pitch their ideas to legislators. Liz Paolella, an 8th-grade social studies teacher at Hamlet Middle School, said it was the first time many of her students had a chance to take part in the civic process.

“Our kids felt so empowered. They felt like they had a voice. They were so professional,” she said.

One of those students was Anthony Candelario, an 8th-grader who did his project on sexual assault and drug and alcohol abuse among students. Candelario told The Breeze he thinks these topics affect students as young as 6th grade, and the middle school health curriculum needs to do a better job of addressing them.

“My 7th-grade year, we mainly watched movies,” he said about his health class. “We actually want to push for this for next year.”

Candelario, with the support of Principal,Jennifer Renigaldo, submitted his suggestions for the health curriculum to the Education Department and School Committee, which plans to discuss the topic at its next curriculum subcommittee meeting. Renigaldo said she thinks student voice is an important piece for school growth and is hopeful to see what comes out of the project.

Candelario got a head start in civic participation last year when he spoke at the Statehouse on behalf of the C3 Center, a youth center run by NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley. For some of his peers, however, the project was the first exposure they’d had to the civic process, and could potentially be the last depending on where their high school journey takes them. The state of Rhode Island does not require civics as part of the high school curriculum, and many schools don’t teach it, an oversight Kerr-Vanderslice sees as part of a larger problem.

“A huge majority are not teaching civics, and it’s perpetuating this really big problem of more students not knowing about their government and not feeling inclined to participate,” he said.

Teachers at the May 24 event also pointed out the importance of educating students in civics during the digital age, when information, and misinformation, about their government is available at their fingertips.

“They’re online more, they have more access and exposure to this stuff,” said Toni-Marie Campopiano, a 7th-grade teacher. “I think they need to understand what’s available to them.”

Thankfully for Woonsocket students, civics education isn’t going anywhere. Next year, the district plans to implement Generation Citizen at the high school level to continue educating students as they approach graduation and voting age. The reaction from students, if Candelario offers any indication, has been positive.

“I’m very happy about this,” he said, adding he hopes to continue to stay involved in the civic process in the years ahead.

Isabella Dealencar, Gabriel Fowler, Jayda Terrero, Genesis Martinez and Crystal Rodriguez, all 8th-grade students at Hamlet Middle School, chose advocating for alcohol abuse education for their civics project.
Anthony Candelario, an 8th grade student at Hamlet Middle School, holds up a citation from Gov. Gina Raimondo for his participation in Generation Citizen.