Media Highlights

Opportunity Indicator Series: Engaged, Civic-Minded Students Build Strong Communities

by Lucia Grigoli   •  

A democracy is government of, by and for the people. For democracy to take root, however, the people must be invested in their communities. This week’s Opportunity Index indicator, Community Engagement, measures the number of adults in each state that belong to social, civic, sports or religious groups, a good measure of how involved citizens 18 years of age or older are in their communities. The Index found that the highest percentage of community engagement is only 44.7% in Minnesota. This means that at our best, less than half of America is involved in their community. How do we remedy this sobering fact?

Community engagement starts at a young age. Several studies have shown that children who volunteer with their parents are considerably more likely to volunteer and donate in the future. Youth who participate in school groups frequently continue their involvement in organized groups as adults.

Public education has also traditionally played a powerful role in building communities and fostering a civic spirit. Across the country, local schools serve as important symbols of community and gathering places after school hours. Historically, American public school system’s mission was to not only educate the population but to turn out good citizens with a firm grasp of government and a commitment to contributing to their communities. Yet, school curricula today in the United States don’t always reflect these values. An important part of raising involved citizens is civic education and service learning. But between math and English, and the pressure to test in these subjects, other priorities are often pushed to the wayside.
In 2011, only 4 percent of American high school seniors scored “advanced” on a civics test administered by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Twenty-four percent scored proficient. Translation: fewer than 1/3 of American high school students have a good understanding of how their government functions.

Though all 50 states and the District of the Columbia require or offer at least one course in civics or U.S. government, few state standards cover practical applications for today’s world in addition to historical facts. Only 19 states include civic learning in their state assessment. Just half of American high schools offer service learning curricula in their schools.

Coalition partner Generation Citizen is working to combat both of these issues by placing “Democracy Coaches” in schools to help teachers with hands on civic learning. During these lessons, students gain the skills and knowledge to effect positive change in their communities. At the end of each semester, student representatives from each class present their ideas to the community. The organization’s mission is to “strengthen our nation’s democracy by empowering young people to become engaged and effective citizens” in which everyone participates in the political process.

“Our innovative, action-based program will revolutionize civics education in this country. Generation Citizen is building a new generation of youth activists and leaders; a generation inspired and equipped to make change.”

Generation Citizen currently has partnerships in New York, Boston, Providence and San Francisco and are expanding every year. If you’re interested in getting involved, you can apply to be a Democracy Coach in your local community, or tweet this article to promote the cause!

About this week’s indicator:

Opportunity Index Dimension: Community Health and Civic Life
Indicator: Community Engagement (percent of adults 18 and over involved in social, civic, sports, and religious
Source: Measure of America analysis of data from U.S. Census Bureau, DataFerrett,
Current Population Survey & Civic Engagement Supplement
Rationale for inclusion: Involved community members benefit from social support and greater knowledge about and access to a variety of resources, increasing their well-being and access to opportunity.

Lucia Grigoli is an Opportunity Nation Communications Intern whose interests lie in writing, policy, education and labor rights. She’ll be entering American University this fall.

Lucia Grigoli

Opportunity Nation Intern

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