Forever Yours in Civics

Twenty years ago this fall I began a short stint as a social studies teacher at Community High School in West Chicago (Wego). It was there that I met our incomparable Instructional Specialist Mary Ellen Daneels and was assigned to teach a required Government course called the Legislative Semester. Conceived by retiring teacher Steve Arnold and perfected by Daneels, the Legislative Semester engaged students across classes in the legislative processes of the Illinois General Assembly from day one. Class was conducted with Parliamentary Procedure, where students debated and voted upon issues, later declaring party affiliations, electing party leadership, and drafting legislation with an issue group.

Ultimately, students’ bills were presented and debated in committee, a half-day all school “field trip” where the library and adjacent classrooms were transformed into legislative antechambers. Bills that survived committee scrutiny (about half) moved to full session, three half day floor debates in the school auditorium. These sessions attracted congressmen, state legislators, and local officials, but also students from other classes and grades in the balcony. The Legislative Semester was and remains the “Big Show,” a capstone experience for all Wego graduates.

Arnold mentored me over lunch during my first and his final year at Wego. One day I asked him why this extraordinary civic learning experience was not the norm for students across Illinois. Arnold told me it was my task to make this aspiration a reality. Two decades later, we can claim significant progress to this end.

I joined the McCormick Foundation in Summer 2005 to serve as a First Amendment content expert at the Freedom Museum in Tribune Tower. The museum opened in 2006 and targeted middle and high school students and teachers. It closed three years later, but staff was asked to carry forth with our teacher professional development and student programming. We eventually merged with a grantmaking arm at McCormick, and the rest is history. Along the way, I had the good fortune to meet Carolyn Pereira, founder of the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago and the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition (ICMC), and architect of the Democracy Schools Initiative (DSI).

Through the ICMC, convened since 2010 by the McCormick Foundation upon Pereira’s retirement, we scaled the DSI, which embodies the principles of the Legislative Semester schoolwide. The Democracy Schools Network now stretches from Antioch to Wolf Lake, encompassing roughly ten percent of Illinois high schools, and demonstrating that high-quality civic learning opportunities and democratic school cultures can thrive in all demographic and geographic contexts.

We advocated for and led the Illinois Task Force on Civic Education, ultimately making policy recommendations and holding public hearings from Chicago to Carbondale, setting the stage for series of legislative and administrative wins in the years that followed. This included legislation to require a semester of civics in high school, embedding proven civic learning practices like discussion and simulations, and revisions to state social studies standards that centered “taking informed action” across subjects. We later achieved a parallel middle school course requirement, and since Summer 2016, have worked to support teachers, schools, and districts to implement these policies with fidelity.

While I plead guilty to burying the lede, Friday, January 22 will be my final day at the Foundation. I accepted a position to serve as the senior director of state policy and advocacy at iCivics. I’ll be charged there with replicating some of the things we’ve done in Illinois to strengthen civic learning for K-12 students across the country.

Our work is by no means complete, but I hand the baton to Mary Ellen Daneels, who will lead middle school civics implementation from the DuPage Regional Office of Education through Summer 2023. Program Officer Sonia Mathew will continue to manage the Democracy Schools Initiative and McCormick’s youth civic engagement strategy. And I will remain active in these efforts on the ground in Illinois and in states across the country as others seek to emulate us. Yes, the Land of Lincoln is now the model state for civic learning, and the practices embedded within the Legislative Semester the norm for all Illinois students.

Know that I am grateful for your partnership in these endeavors, for ours is a grass roots movement with teachers and students at the fore. For your friendship, as I’ve been blessed to do the work I love in the company of lifelong companions. And for your passionate belief in the power of young people to reverse the democratic trajectory of this state through high-quality, school-based civic learning opportunities.