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Originally published Tuesday, August 20, 2013 at 4:09 PM

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Guest: Want engaged citizens? Start with civics in school

Seattle can do a better job developing engaged citizens by strengthening education in civics, according to guest columnists Web Hutchins and Judith Billings.

Special to The Times

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AS a city with a long and proud tradition of civic activism, political engagement and progressive education, Seattle should easily be the civics-education capital of America.

But it isn’t.

And, as one of the most politically savvy, highly educated and philanthropically engaged cities in the world, Seattle should have a world-class K-12 school system in which all students understand and embrace their rights and duties as citizens.

But we don’t.

Let’s fix this, Seattle.

This fall, as the mayoral, City Council and School Board elections approach, voters should ask candidates about citizenship education and the Seattle school district’s emaciated civics standards.

Other than a one-semester senior government class, our district requires just three civics mini-units during a student’s entire K-12 experience. Could our expectations be any lower?

Seattle can create a unified K-12 school system that celebrates citizenship, cultivates character and boosts academic achievement by adopting the Civics for All Initiative. This 2011 policy proposal calls for district adoption of substantial increases in K-12 civics requirements, media literacy, districtwide K-12 mock elections each November and civics connections across the curriculum.

While pockets of superb civics education exist in various schools, this initiative will give all students access to the grade-lifting relevance and sense of purpose that makes civics-centric schools so powerful.

Seattle could set a national example for eradicating the civics gap that is crippling our democracy and disenfranchising our youth, especially students of color.

Civic disconnection among American youth is shocking. In 2010, for example, 75 percent of national K-12 test takers failed the National Assessment of Education Progress civics test and only 21 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted in federal elections.

Many national experts have vetted Civics for All, as have countless parents, students, teachers and education professors. Numerous elected officials, such as state Reps. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, and Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, endorse it.

Margit McGuire, director of the Master’s in Teaching Program at Seattle University and a Civics for All board member, asserts that a strong civics foundation for young learners is essential because “research suggests that children start to develop a strong sense of social responsibility and an interest in civic ideals like fairness in the elementary years.”

Students deserve a coherent civics curriculum because the complexities of democratic citizenship demand it. By studying ideals like the common good, students cultivate their unique civic identities and learn to advocate for themselves.

For marginalized students, especially, this is a profoundly empowering experience that often fuels academic growth.

Abundant research shows that civic literacy is just as critical to student success as literacy in math and English. And civics supports district work in many areas, like anti-bullying, the new arts initiative and the new Common Core education standards.

Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.”

An intentional commitment to citizenship education will benefit Seattle for generations to come by uniting us around our city’s future leaders. When we honor youth as citizen-scholars and engage them in civic conversations and challenges, they invariably respond with honesty, idealism and fresh ideas.

King County Elections Director Sherril Huff and Secretary of State Kim Wyman have pledged to help facilitate Seattle’s annual mock elections. If Seattle Schools Superintendent José Banda decides to endorse the initiative, preparations will commence for the Nov. 4, 2014, election, when Seattle could hold the largest mock election of this type in American history.

Picture it: Each autumn, Seattle will sizzle with youthful political energy as nearly 100 schools, 50,000 citizen-scholars and their families engage in democracy’s most sacred acts: discussing issues, ideas and initiatives, choosing candidates and voting.

Please contact Superintendent Banda to voice your support for the Civics for All Initiative.

Let’s make civics for all a reality.

Web Hutchins, a Seattle public-school teacher, founded the Civics for All Initiative. Judith Billings is the former state superintendent of public instruction.

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