|Civics teacher Brian O'Connell talks to students about the foundations of American government on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2006, in his class at George Washington High School in Charleston. Civics is a required course for seniors beginning with the Class of 2008.|
“Civics gives me a better appreciation of how our government works,” said Makenzie Hatfield, a 16-year-old junior at George Washington. “I’m very involved with teenage Republicans at our school. In fact I’m a die-hard Republican. In this class, we’re free to express our opinions. It stresses doing your civic duty no matter who you vote for.”
Hatfield is ahead of many of her peers in the Class of 2008, the first group of West Virginia students who must have a new civics credit to graduate. Although civics courses have long been offered as electives in some West Virginia high schools, they will now be required by all. The newly revamped class also will include a personal finance component in response to a state law adopted in 2005.
The full-year course will cover basics such as how to tell the difference between wants and needs, the effect career choices and education have on earnings and lifestyle and the difference between gross and net income. Students will take civics as seniors, when they are getting ready to vote, buy their first cars, start careers or go to college.
“A lot of students have gotten the idea that what they do won’t make a difference,” said Huntington High School civics teacher Kathleen Turner. “Civics helps them understand that their voice and their vote counts. It helps them find a place and not be afraid.”
Turner uses an online program in her classes that asks students a series of questions and then tells them which political candidates throughout history have shared the same views.
“It’s a real eye-opener for them,” Turner said.
The West Virginia Board of Education took the bold step of making civics a required course at a time when a third of the nation’s school districts reported cutting back on social studies, including civics, government, economics, history and geography, according to the National Center for Education Policy. They often cite efforts to improve reading and math test scores to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
“The rights, freedoms and liberties that are the very heart of our democracy can’t be preserved unless we convey to our children the importance of community involvement, being informed and performing our civic duties,” said state Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine. “We also must teach them to practice civility, have respect for the law and respect human dignity.”
West Virginia’s push to reinvigorate civics is recognized in a report by the National Association of State Boards of Education to be released in October. The report, “Citizens for the 21st Century: Revitalizing the Civic Mission of Schools,” cites West Virginia for its use of technology, teaching of ethics and incorporating 21st century skills, among other strengths.
“Civics is so important to a well-rounded education," said Priscilla Haden, secretary of the West Virginia Board of Education and facilitator of Civic Education West Virginia. “Students must master reading and math, but in a Democratic society, it is equally important for them to be well-versed in how their government works and their role in it.”
Civics lessons were introduced nearly a century ago to help new immigrants assimilate into American culture. The Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal and the cultural revolution brought much disenchantment, a retreat from civics education and apathy.
Today, America has been so polarized, leaving little middle ground for moderates. And some point to a fizzling civics curriculum over the years as a contributor to the problem.
“Children are inundated with so much media on a daily basis that they don’t get a well-rounded education on many issues,” said Regina Scotchie, social studies coordinator for the West Virginia Department of Education. “They need someone to help them sort it out, ask the right questions and see that there can be agendas behind political platforms.”
Researchers have found that students who study civics are more apt to follow government affairs and participate in their society. Young people who have taken civics also are up to three times more likely to vote, be aware of government news and contact public officials about concerns.
“My 18th birthday is Oct. 19 so I’m really excited about voting,” said senior Brittany Ireland, who takes civics at George Washington. “I’ll get to voice my opinion and help whoever I want to win, win.”
Parkersburg High School civics teacher Woody Wilson said that is the type of enthusiasm civics classes can generate. Wilson said he’s proud of West Virginia for putting civics back into the required curriculum.
“Citizenship doesn’t work unless you know how to be one,” Parkersburg High School civics teacher Woody Wilson said. “I hope what West Virginia has done radiates to other parts of the country.”