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A civics revival

REMEMBER CIVICS class? Too many people don't, and that's why national groups working to make democracy and citizenship riveting parts of the kindergarten-through-12th-grade curriculum deserve a rousing blast of John Philip Sousa -- with flags.

The newest effort, started in March, is the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, which last month gave grants of $150,000 each to six states to make civics a priority.

"We want to revive the ideal," said David Skaggs, a former Democratic congressman from Colorado, in a recent interview. He is founder and director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship in Washington, which is overseeing the school program.

Funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the initiative seeks to turn civics education into a statewide effort that includes coalitions of politicians, judges, business people, and community leaders as well as teachers. The idea is to go beyond how a bill becomes a law and to inspire students with the power a citizen holds in democratic society.

Skaggs wants to get young people to be as passionate about voting as many of them are about recycling, which, he noted, "has instilled in people the idea that every can matters." He asks, "Why haven't we instilled the kind of civic faith in people that tells them every vote matters?"

Patrick Phillips, deputy commissioner of education in Maine -- which was awarded one of the grants -- said that low voter turnouts in national elections, particularly in the 18-to-24 age group, should be a warning bell to the country.

"It is time to think as a society about the role all of us play in transmitting the beliefs, skills, and knowledge required for participation in a democratic society," he said in a phone interview. He wants to encourage more interaction among legislators, judges, and students, fostering "a deeper, more personal sense" of how the system works.

Enlightened spots

That's happening in some enlightened spots around the country -- notably in Hudson, Mass., where the superintendent of schools, Sheldon Berman, declares the "true mission of education" to be not only the teaching of math, science, and reading but "the creation of a public on which a democracy can survive."

For the past 10 years Hudson schools have emphasized civics from kindergarten on up. Students do community service projects, work to change environmental law, discuss the moral and immoral decisions of government, and are part of committees that debate and press for change on school policies.

"I don't believe kids learn civics unless they live it," said Berman.

State Senator Richard Moore, Democrat from Uxbridge, who serves on Skaggs's steering committee, said Massachusetts has a "reasonably healthy civics component" in its history and social studies frameworks, and he praises the Education Department's move to include civics questions in the MCAS tests.   Continued...

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