Civic Engagement

Section C

“The development of any Student Council should be based upon a definite philosophy of democracy. It should truly be one of participation and sharing, a means through which students develop a belief in and an intelligent understanding and appreciation of our theory of democratic government and its processes. Here, certainly is an excellent opportunity for the school to be a laboratory of practice in democracy in which the school is the community of operation. It must be an essential part of the overall school program.” (NASSP Bulletin, October 1944, p. 21)

So what do we mean by civic engagement? In a 2006 study by the Case Foundation, Citizens at the Center: A New Approach to Civic Engagement, it was defined as “creating opportunities for ordinary citizens to come together, deliberate, and take action collectively to address public problems or issues that the citizens themselves define as important and in ways that citizens themselves decide are appropriate and needed.” Now think of students as citizens of the school along with the faculty, staff, and administration. That is what we are talking about.

What are the goals of civic engagement?

As young people become engaged civically, they acquire and learn to use the skills, knowledge,
and attitudes that will prepare them to be competent and responsible citizens throughout their
lives. Competent and responsible citizens:

  • Are informed and thoughtful; have a grasp and an appreciation of history and the
    fundamental processes of American democracy; have an understanding and awareness of
    public and community issues; and have the ability to obtain information, think critically, and
    enter into dialogue among others with different perspectives.
  • Participate in their communities through membership in or contributions to organizations
    working to address an array of cultural, social, political, and religious interests and beliefs.
  • Act politically by having the skills, knowledge, and commitment needed to accomplish
    public purposes, such as group problem solving, public speaking, petitioning and protesting,
    and voting.
  • Have moral and civic virtues such as concern for the rights and welfare of others, social
    responsibility, tolerance and respect, and belief in the capacity to make a difference.

Source: The Civic Mission of Schools – A Report from Carnegie Corporation of New York and CIRCLE: The
Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 2003

How Can Students Be Engaged Civically?

(Source: Adapted from the Civics Framework for the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress, Developed under contract number ZA95001001 by the Council of Chief State School Officers with the Center for Civic Education and the American Institutes for Research for the National Assessment Governing Board.)

One student summed up civic engagement saying, “Civic engagement is simple—It’s you acting upon your cares and concerns within your community. This means actively discussing the issue at hand followed by a direct course of action, whether it is a remedy or an improvement.”

There are numerous ways that students can participate in activities that are civic-based. Three skill areas associated with civic engagement are Interacting, Monitoring, and Influencing. Interacting skills are those that deal with communicating and working with others. Monitoring skills are used to track issues being considered in the political arenas or by the decision-makers. Influencing skills are needed to make a difference on how government sees or addresses the issues. Many student councils already host such activities but haven’t made the civic connection.

Here are examples of actions and activities that civically engage students…


  • Working in small groups and committees, students can pool information, exchange opinions, and formulate plans of action.
  • Simply by listening they can gain information, ideas, and hear different perspectives.
  • Questioning allows them to clarify information or points of view and to elicit facts and opinions.
  • Discuss school and public affairs in a knowledgeable, responsible, and civil manner in school, with neighbors and friends, or in community groups and public forums.
  • Participate in voluntary clubs or associations and interest groups to promote ideas, policies, and interests.
  • Build coalitions that enlist the support of like-minded individuals and groups to promote candidates, policies.
  • Manage conflicts in school and out that seek to bring peaceful resolution. Such strategies may include mediation, negotiation, compromise, consensus building, and adjudication.
  • Perform school and community service by serving as a representative or elected leader; organize a public issues forum (in or out of school); volunteer with one’s religious, civic, or charitable organizations.
  • Use media resources to obtain information, exchange ideas, or advocate responsibly for or against public policies.
  • Deliberate on public issues, e.g., health care, employment, environmental concerns.
  • Assess others’ arguments and positions for their validity rather than because of who it is that utters them, remaining calm in the face of opposition.


  • Listen attentively to fellow students, proceedings of public bodies, media reports.
  • Hold officials accountable for using their authority consistently, ethically, and with basic constitutional principles.
  • Follow school and public issues in the media by using a variety of sources, such as television, radio, online sources, newspapers, journals, and magazines.
  • Research school and public issues, using computer resources, libraries, the telephone, personal contacts, and the media.
  • Gather and analyze information from school or government officials and agencies, interest groups, and civic organizations.
  • Attend public meetings and hearings, e.g., student council, city council and school board meetings, briefings by members of county boards of supervisors, state legislatures, and Congress.
  • Interview people knowledgeable about civic issues, such as local officials, civil servants, experts in public and private associations, members of college and university faculties.
  • Use electronic resources for acquiring and exchanging information, e.g., the internet and electronic bulletin boards.


  • Vote in class, student body, local, state, national, and special elections.
  • Inform policymakers by sharing factual data that you have gathered.
  • Lead a petition calling the attention of representative bodies (student councils, etc.) or public officials to grievances and desired changes in public policy, gathering signatures for initiatives or recall.
  • Write letters or send emails to policymakers to express opinion and share data on issues.
  • Speak and testify before public bodies such as student body councils, school boards, special districts, state legislatures, and Congress.
  • Support or oppose candidates or positions on school and public issues by volunteering time or talent.
  • Participate in civic and political groups on campus or in the community—student council; youth groups; local, state, and national political party groups; and ad hoc advocacy groups.
  • Use various media to advance points of view on school or public issues by hosting or participating in online discussions of public issues, writing newspaper and magazine articles, voicing one’s opinion on radio and television talk shows.

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