At the end of the 2014 school year, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) honored 24 graduating seniors from 12 different high schools. While celebrating students’ academic achievement is a common focus at the end of the school year, what made this event stand out was something that was starkly missing. There was no mention of “GPA, college acceptance, honor roll, or magna cum laude;” instead, students received accolades for “empathy, making a difference, and using digital media.”

The event “Celebrating Community Ready,” part of an initiative supported by the Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network, an Educator Innovator partner, stressed that preparing students for democracy in the digital age is a critical part of the educational mission of schools. It highlighted OUSD’s commitment to preparing all students to graduate not just college and career ready, but college, career, and community ready.

Two seniors, Oscar Davalos and Jose Cartegena from MetWest High School, were honored as “community ready” because they exemplify the use of digital media to raise awareness of issues that are important to young people. Through a partnership with a local online newspaper Oakland Local and with the district’s television station KDOL, Oscar and Jose started a youth blogging site called Young Oakland.  On this site, their team of student writers and reporters wrote stories and published photos on topics that range from relationships to perceptions of Oakland. Their work speaks to the unique opportunity for students to reach a broader audience for their ideas through the use of online blogging.

Valerie Panameno from Fremont High School conducted research on the impact of Latino parents’ education levels on their children’ success in schools. She investigated the leading research on this subject through an interview with UC Berkeley professor Dr. Sera Hernandez. But the part of her research that was most meaningful was when she asked questions of a focus group of Latino parents whose children attend her high school. In a Youth Radio interview, she commented that “some parents didn’t understand what the report card system was and more often, they didn’t know how important college was.” By engaging in the local community through her research, she proposed a local way to address the problem of Latino dropout rates at her school, asking that the school offer translation support for parents to talk with teachers at the beginning of each semester to check in on a student’s progress. Valerie’s research illuminates a learning journey that leads to action. She began with an issue of personal significance for her, grappled with what others had written or had to say about this issue, and was inspired to do something to positively impact this issue.

Yasser Alwan from Oakland International took a similar path when he and his peers decided that they wanted a soccer field for their school. This issue was not simply about inadequate resources for another urban school, but it was fundamentally about building an inclusive community at their school where soccer was the only common language for many newcomer students to the United States.  What began as an awareness campaign through a website and documentary video led Yasser and his peers to bring their issue to school board meetings to get the district to hear their demands.

In each of the above examples, students’ passions led them to express themselves in some powerful way, whether that was video, blog, advocacy, or research. While a few students may discover their own way to be a civic actor, more often people become civically active because they were shown how to participate. Giving students the chance to learn how to participate in community change, however, is something most schools and classrooms do not emphasize. There is no textbook to teach civic engagement.  Through the experiences of students and teachers, however, we are beginning to fill this chasm.

Through Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age, an initiative developed in partnership with the Civic Engagement Research Group at Mills College and the National Writing Project, OUSD teachers are collaborating with one another to develop classroom practices that support students to be community ready. In planning professional learning for the teachers, we recognize that there is a chasm of knowledge about how to educate for democracy in the digital age. Though we can point to Government textbooks that explain the structure and functions of political systems, there are no textbooks that teach students how to be civically active or how to take action to improve their communities. Students learn how to be civically active by being civically active. Students learn how to take action to improve their communities by taking action. Teachers then must innovate their curriculum to create opportunities for students to engage in the practice of civic action. The initiative provides teachers with resources, gives them space and time to engage with different digital strategies, and offers strategies; but ultimately, they were the ones to decide how they would educate for democracy.

As we transition into our third year, there are some trends emerging as to what civic action looks like in a classroom setting. We have found that students are engaging in actions that broadly fall into one of three categories: raising awareness of an issue often with the support of digital media, engaging the community through field research, and addressing power holders.

In addition to the seniors who were honored at Celebrating Community Ready, there are students in many classrooms in OUSD whose education is preparing them for democracy in the digital age. You can learn more about these teachers and the things that they have tried in their classrooms at our website.

By Young Whan Choi, OUSD Civic Engagement Coordinator