By Peter Davis
“Democracy must be reborn every generation and education is its midwife” rings as true today as it did when John Dewey penned it a century ago. If my generation does not develop the democratic values, civic skills, and public-minded determination to steward and grow our civic culture, then our public life will assuredly wither.
Fortunately, we have a civic culture in Falls Church schools and, as I recall, every individual in the school system was always willing to help students with civic development. However, at the high school level, we had very little institutionalized structure for developing the skills of civic creativity and public action in the way that we, say, had such a structure for English or Math. Mason’s single course on Government is not enough: learning how a bill becomes a law or why the 7th amendment matters in a classroom setting is not the same as developing the hands-on skills, experience and commitment that is needed for students to become the confident, public-minded, problem-solving civic creators that our Little City and big nation desperately needs them to be! Many Falls Churchians raised similar imperatives at the 2013 FCCPS Community Visioning: the need for adult mentorship, tighter bonds between the school and community, and project-based learning.
In response to these goals and in the spirit of Superintendent Jones’ commitment to community visioning, I have an idea: A George Mason High School Public Project Program that makes the imagining, developing and implementing of a public project an institutionalized part of each GMHS student’s civic education experience. This will involve: (1) making “the creation of a public project” a new graduation requirement; (2) developing a cross-curricular Public Project Program for the implementation of this new requirement; and (3) organizing community engagement with the program. Each student will: pick a public project to work on early in 11th grade; recruit an adult civic mentor and underclassmen teammates; learn how to articulate ideas in English class; learn how to place their project into historical context in History class; investigate the ins-and-outs of the problem they are solving; and spend their final two years of high school working to make their vision a reality.
Each student’s project has to be a concrete project they initiate. Volunteering at a soup kitchen does not count – this is not a service hours program – but starting the student group for the local soup kitchen does count. Attending city council meetings does not count – this is about more than just civic participation; it’s about student leadership, too! – but writing a serious report to the council on a public issue does count. Examples of public projects include: organizing a group to paint a public mural (as one Class of 2007 student did); proposing a safety initiative (as Marta Eckert-Mills did in creating the bike path bridge over Broad Street); setting up solar panels on the school (as James Peterson ’08 did); and opening up a local chapter of a national movement (as Matt Abel ’12 and others did with Transition Falls Church).
I anticipate some questions. First, how do we fit this in? One proposal could be to house the program in a class, as TJ High School does with its required student project. Some might insist we make such a class voluntary, to which I ask: “when we decided that foreign language learning or physical education were important to us, why did we choose to make them mandatory?” If you make civic creativity an elective, it will only attract those who are already exposed to civic creativity.
Second, wouldn’t there be too many projects? Students could work together or join an existing project in town, as long as their contribution is a discrete creation within the initiative they join. Finally, isn’t mandating service problematic? This is better than mandatory service hours, because it is a student-directed, integrated project experience on which you work long term.
We – Superintendent Jones, Principal Byrd, and the whole FCCPS community – have a chance to come out of our Community Visioning with a concrete initiative that: provides students a unique, self-driven lesson in commitment, leadership, creativity and resilience; makes every student a civic leader; and weaves a tighter bond between GMHS and the wider community through civic mentoring. Realizing such a vision is easier said than done – it is going to take a robust conversation among all stakeholders. However, I hope we can get started this year on the path towards making this dream – a public project for every student, a life lesson in civic creativity, and democracy reborn in a new generation – a reality at George Mason!
If you are excited, check out www.GMHSPublicProject.org to find out more information and sign our petition to Superintendent Jones. Email GMHSPublicProject@gmail.com to get involved.
Peter Davis is a founder of CommonPlace America and lead organzier for CommonPlace Falls Church.