Guest post written by David Wakelyn, Senior Director of Democracy Prep Public Schools and former education policy advisor to Governor Andrew Cuomo
"What was the Gettysburg Address? Have you heard of it?"
"Yes, I've heard of it. I don't know the exact address."
Late night comics generate easy laughs from American schools' failure to provide students with a civic education. National test scores tell a similar, but less amusing, story: only 22 percent of eighth grade students can identify the historical purposes of the Declaration of Independence and three-fourths of high school seniors cannot identify the effect of a U.S. foreign policy on other nations.
And yet there are plenty of legitimate reasons for students to be disengaged. Congress has been gridlocked, unable or unwilling to reach consensus on important issues such as debt reduction and immigration reform. Our leaders too often forget they were elected to be stewards and instead, betray the public trust, putting self-interest ahead of the common good.
Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem was founded to reverse this tide. Our mission is to educate citizen-scholars for success in the college of their choice and a lifetime of active citizenship.
The most recent example of putting this mission into practice is "Vote for Somebody," a song by the fourth grade class at Harlem Prep Elementary. Built from the melody of Carly Rae Jepsen's hit song "Call Me Maybe" the song is a reminder to the country that our democratic process matters. "Vote for Somebody" has become a viral sensation gathering 300,000 hits on You Tube. What you see on the video is joy on the scholars' faces, that asking people to take the issues of tomorrow's election seriously can also be fun.
The hook in the chorus is "Vote for Obama. Vote for Romney. It's you civic duty. Vote for Somebody!" But my favorite line is "so many 'round the world, long for democracy," a reminder that students and their families in Syria and Iran lack the same rights we experience in our daily lives.
By the time they are seniors, our fourth graders will have learned twelve civic skills and dispositions, many of which will require them to use the state-of-the art technologies. Democracy Prep scholars will engage in e-advocacy and social media tools to launch a campaign that's personally meaningful. They will have to fundraise, debate, register others to vote, and travel abroad to understand different perspectives. Our scholars are less likely to be disengaged when they experience themselves as central to making change in their communities and in doing so, become the active citizens our nation's founders and builders envisioned.