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Partnering to Improve Civic Education in City’s High Schools

Building on the success of Penn’s Student Voices civic engagement program that has been the centerpiece of the School District of Philadelphia’s curriculum for the past year, district officials and Penn last week announced a partnership with The Pew Charitable Trusts and The Comcast Foundation to build professional development for participating teachers and create a supporting media literacy curriculum.

“Our Student Voices curriculum serves as an invaluable tool to our students, educating them on the social implications and impact of activism within our society,” said School Reform Commission Chairman James Nevels. “The program’s continued implementation and expansion will only lead to more informed, politically savvy voters, and, most importantly, future community activists.”

“We are pleased to have the continued support of The Pew Charitable Trusts and The Comcast Foundation behind the School District’s education initiatives like Student Voices, that develop our students into informed decision makers,” added Paul Vallas, the district’s CEO.

President Dr. Amy Gutmann credited Pew and Comcast, as well as the Annenberg Foundation, which has funded Student Voices since its inception, for their commitment to helping build civic consciousness in Philadelphia public schools.

“Penn is enormously grateful for the generous support from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Comcast Corporation, and the Annenberg Foundation for our Student Voices program,” President Gutmann said. “The School District of Philadelphia, Pew, Comcast, Annenberg, and Penn all recognize that an important way to nurture citizenship is not only to bring civics back to the high school curriculum but also to make it come alive for students by bringing the real world of government and politics into the classroom. The future of our democracy depends on the engagement of our citizens in civic and political institutions. At Penn, we are committed to increasing civic engagement and increasing the civic knowledge that teaches students how to become informed and articulate citizens.”

Created in 1999 by Dr. Phyllis Kaniss of Penn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) to help students learn about the importance of voting and informed participation in government and elections, Student Voices began in 33 Philadelphia High Schools. Today in Philadelphia, Student Voices is the civics component of the required core curriculum in social studies, reaching more than 8,000 students through 150 social studies teachers in the new Social Science class in all 59 of the district’s high schools. Nationwide, the Student Voices curriculum has been introduced to 13 major cities across the nation and is used by teachers throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey in statewide efforts.

Student Voices is a non-partisan, civic education program designed to inform, inspire and educate high school students about government and elections so they can become the well-informed citizens critical to a modern democracy. Student Voices was named as one of six outstanding models of effective civic learning by the Center for Research and Information on Civic Learning and Engagement and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. For more information on Student Voices, visit www.student-voices.org.

To ensure continued success of the program in Philadelphia public schools, district and Student Voices officials identified a need to implement a formal professional development program for teachers—many of whom are typically trained in the use of textbooks to teach facts and dates—to bring a more experiential approach to learning about civic engagement in politics and government. The Pew Charitable Trusts has awarded Student Voices a $300,000 grant over three years to provide that training.  The grant will also support the development and testing of a means to assess student progress and achievement in developing civic skills and capacities. This initiative is intended to help institutionalize the Student Voices curriculum on a permanent basis, and create a model that could be replicated in other districts.

In addition, The Comcast Foundation has awarded a $25,000 grant that is enabling Student Voices to develop a media literacy curriculum tied to the innovative program, “Student Voices on PSTV,” which airs on the district’s cable television station, Channel 52. The Comcast Foundation grant is helping students make their own videos about civic issues in their communities.  The videos will be showcased monthly on the district’s cable channel. The monies have also funded the purchase of digital video equipment so that students can shoot the videos and software so students can edit their videos on school computers.

“The Trusts is delighted with the success of Student Voices, and we are proud to support the teacher training and professional development that will benefit students for years to come,” said Rebecca W. Rimel, president and CEO of The Pew Charitable Trusts. “Providing students with real-life tools and experiences in voting and civic participation is essential to helping them develop healthy civic habits that will last a lifetime.”

“Comcast is proud to be a part of Student Voices’ effort to educate young people about the importance of civic involvement and voting,” said Comcast Corporation Executive Vice President David L. Cohen.  “By creating videos students will use their creativity to engage their peers, stimulate discussion and encourage civic participation in their communities.  This is a great combination of curriculum development and hands-on learning.”

An analysis of semester-long and year-long effects of Student Voices in 26 Philadelphia Public Schools for the 2002-2003 school years by the APPC revealed that students who participated in the program showed significantly more attention to and interest in politics, less political cynicism, and increased political knowledge compared to students who did not participate. A recent study found that the program has long-term effects on improving students’ civic skills after graduation.  Participating students in the 2002-2003 program were contacted following the 2004 general election, and a year and a half to two years after completing the program.  The APPC study found that those who had taken two continuous semesters continued to demonstrate greater interest in politics by following the presidential election and having a greater knowledge of the candidates’ positions.



  Almanac, Vol. 52, No. 24, February 28, 2006


February 28, 2006
Volume 52 Number 24


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