Teaching civic engagement to kids can change their lives–and their communities

 A new county-wide point-in-time survey reveals a 13-percent increase in homelessness across Santa Clara County since 2015. Seven percent of survey respondents reported that their first episode of homelessness occurred when they were under the age of 18, and there are more than 2,500 homeless unaccompanied children and transition-age youth.
Sadly, these are the realities Homeless Youth Specialist Darius Brown is working to communicate in schools across Santa Clara County, where he works with the Santa Clara County Office of Education.
n December 2016 he visited a seventh grade class at Discovery Charter School to give a presentation on homelessness and homeless youth. The classroom teacher followed up with a note of appreciation, sharing that the talk made a huge impact on the students. She noted her class was excited to move forward with their own service projects, wanting to start giving back to their community.
Through the remainder of the school year, these students raised enough money to create more than 100 care packages of hygiene items, socks and other personal supplies for women, men, and children. The pride of accomplishment from this act of kindness was evident in the bright smiles on each and every face of the students who came to the county office of education to deliver the donations.
Whether it was realized or not, they were actively participating in civic engagement. Hopefully this is just the beginning. Their involvement demonstrates that, while most students are too young to vote, they have much to contribute to our communities.
Civic engagement empowers citizens to change or make a difference in their quality of life through both political and non-political processes. Participating in civic activities requires working together, as well as developing a combination of knowledge, skills, ethics and motivation needed to make a difference.
It’s essential to give students opportunities to analyze, address and ultimately have a hand in solving complex issues that are important to them and those around them. Research shows robust civic learning helps students beyond the classroom. Furthermore, research findings correlate high-quality civic learning to increased academic achievement, student engagement and reduced dropout rates.
Students who do not learn or take an interest in civics education and activities may experience long-term effects, such as lack understanding of their democratic rights in college.
As part of a commitment to support civic education and engagement, the Santa Clara County Office of Education is partnering with key community stakeholders to help students “learn, engage, and take action” to increase civic literacy.
This initiative directly supports the Framework for California Public Schools goal that by high school graduation, students will develop the necessary skills for college, careers and civic life. Students need knowledge and critical thinking to interpret and communicate ideas, as well as the tools to negotiate and collaborate in ways that positively affect democratic practices and other people’s lives.
These skills are essential to be informed voters, serve as responsible jurors and participate in policy making decisions.
The future of our democracy depends on us all. Together, we can connect community members; improve citizen awareness of the issues faced by people in our communities; innovate to solve problems; empower diverse communities, and, most importantly, give everyone a chance to participate in public discourse and civic engagement.
Mary Ann Dewan is Deputy Superintendent at Santa Clara County Office of Education. Steve Olmos is  Chief Schools Officer at the Santa Clara County Office of Education. They wrote this for The Mercury News.