The divided team struggled to negotiate.
Team members on one side were focused on their proposal winning. They wanted to find a solution to violence in their neighborhood. The other side? Just as determined to see their idea on improving mental health succeed.
Janice Jackson knew her team had to come to a consensus. She saw value in both sides. Then the light bulb went off: Combine the two topics and focus on the mental health of incarcerated people. Her fellow teammates agreed, and together they had the issue they would try to solve.
Finding a middle ground was one of many skills 14-year-old Janice and a few dozen other middle school-age students recently learned. They participated in a summer camp called iEngage, a free weeklong program that teaches rising sixth- through ninth-graders the importance of getting involved in their community and other civics-related skills.
Students who participate in iEngage have to assemble a multimedia project. To check out previous projects, visit https://bit.ly/3OOZkdo.
More than 50 students participated. They were split into teams and had to pick a community issue that they thought needed more awareness. Not only that, the students had to propose a solution to begin to solve the problem. The students had to research and compile all of the information they gathered into a presentation, website and a short public service announcement video.
Michelle Bauml is a professor at Texas Christian University’s College of Education. She also leads iEngage, which she started at TCU in 2016. Students learn more about their community, how to advocate for themselves, and how to build consensus.
Throughout the week, students learn they do not need to be of voting age to be a valuable citizen. They can make a difference now, if they want. All they need are the right tools.
The camp targets middle school-age students because they are just old enough to understand how the government works and to voice their opinions, Bauml said.
“It teaches them about becoming informed, active citizens in a democracy,” she said.
Cultivate civics skills early
Bauml focuses much of her research on social studies curriculum. She has seen the inadequacy of civics education in elementary and middle schools.
Fewer Americans have an understanding of civics. A 2016 Annenburg Public Policy survey found that only one out of four Americans could name the three branches of government.
The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit public policy think tank based in Washington, D.C. A 2018 Brookings report found that civics education is not prioritized in schools. Nationally, reading and math scores have increased, but civics knowledge among eighth-graders has not, according to Brookings.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress is a national test that measures students’ performance in a variety of subjects in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades. The test, also referred to as the Nation’s Report Card, examines students’ civics knowledge.
The last time the exam was administered was in 2018. Since 1998, the test has not seen any significant changes in the average civics score. However, Latino students have seen a 15 point increase since 1998, and the gap between them and white students has narrowed.
U.S. Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Chris Coons of Delaware proposed a measure that would provide federal grants to colleges or partnerships between universities and nonprofits to boost the knowledge of civics. If approved, the bipartisan bill would invest $1 billion to expand access to civics education. The bill will not establish a uniform civics curriculum across the nation, Coons, a Democrat, told NPR.
Students need to learn civic dispositions and to think about how they can participate in their communities and governments early, Bauml said.
“If we don’t start cultivating those kinds of dispositions and skills early, then we may miss them,” she said. “Certainly a civics camp for a week is not going to fix that problem, but we feel like it can add to the solution.”
‘Your generation is capable’
Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker walked in front of the energetic crowd of middle-schoolers. She jokingly said she was surprised they weren’t sleepy because it was about 9 a.m. in the middle of the summer.
Parker was at iEngage to stress to students that all politics are local — and they can participate regardless of their age.
“What that really means is everything that’s happening in your daily life, what really matters the most is what’s happening locally in your communities,” Parker said. “And one thing that’s great about that is you actually can make a real big difference in Fort Worth.”
She told the rows of students she wants to hear what they think are issues in their neighborhoods and what worries them. She even encouraged them to message her on Instagram, call her office or even show up at a City Council meeting and voice their concerns.
The mayor also told the students that they can advocate for their big ideas. Write those down and share them with an adult, she told the students. Then start making a plan to get the ball rolling on their ideas, she added.
“Your job is not to have all the solutions. But I think it’s really powerful especially when young people come up with ideas,” Parker said.
The mayor also stressed the importance of compromising. She knows firsthand how valuable it is when making policy for Fort Worth. Still, Parker knows consensus building does not happen across all governments.
“Sometimes, you’re going to hear adults refuse to compromise. I think you should be the one to say, ‘I’m going to reject that,’” Parker said. “Compromise is actually a really healthy thing, especially in policy making.”
“I know your generation is capable of that,” she added.
TCU graduate student Isabella DiRuggiero was one of the counselors who guided a team of students on its project. She helped team members think about how the government is involved in the issue they picked and how to start to fix it.
DiRuggiero was in charge of six students who will be in the sixth and seventh grade. Her group wanted to start solving cyberbullying.
She helped the students when they reached an impasse on their project topic. Some wanted to focus on animal cruelty while others wanted cyberbullying. She reminded her students that they must meet in the middle and gently told them that cyberbullying could also encompass animal cruelty to an extent.
The experience helping middle-schoolers was new for DiRuggiero, who plans to become an elementary teacher. She has mostly worked with second- and fourth-grade students.
“Working with middle-schoolers has been so eye opening to me because they have so much experience in the outside world,” she said.
Within her own group, DiRuggiero learned about how some of her students have been cyberbullied. Listening to other groups, she heard about how students know mental health has been a cause of school shootings and their eagerness to solve homelessness.
“It blows my mind to know how much they know about our world, and how strongly they feel about wanting to solve community issues,” she said.
Using skills in future
Throughout iEngage, Janice, the 14-year-old student, had to find ways to build consensus. Those skills will come in handy as she starts her freshman year at Fort Worth ISD’s Young Women’s Leadership Academy.
She doesn’t plan to stop using her civics education after this camp. Janice wants to find ways to improve the roads in east Fort Worth, where her grandmother lives. She even brought up the roads to the mayor when she visited the summer camp.
Janice, though, recognized she will need more people than just herself to change her community.
“We need people to go to the neighborhoods where we come from so they can advocate more for elderly and disabled people who have been living there for so long, but they don’t have the help so their streets can look nice,” Janice said.
Time will tell if Janice’s advocacy will pay off. However, she will be able to trace her efforts back to the civics education she learned at iEngage.
Ultimately, that is what matters for Bauml. She wants to give students the tools to advocate for themselves, their thoughts and their communities.
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.