Civic Learning Partnership seeks to expand students’ Constitutional knowledge, civic engagement

County Superintendent Al Mijares
County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares addresses the Orange County Civic Learning Partnership on April 11. Justice officials, educators and other partners are collaborating to provide students with a comprehensive knowledge of government and experience tackling real-world issues.

Joshua Suh of Cypress High School talked about studying the effects of eutrophication on waterways as part of a civic learning project in his AP government class.

Rose Chhabria, who attends Brywood Elementary School in Irvine, referenced her research on a California senator.

And Jasmine Chhabria of Northwood High reprised her award-winning National History Day presentation on Sylvia Mendez, whose family successfully challenged school segregation in Westminster in the 1940s.

Suffice to say, there are plenty of civics success stories in Orange County schools, which recently won 17 of 92 Civic Learning Awards in a program co-sponsored by California’s chief justice and the state superintendent of public instruction. But a new initiative led by OCDE is seeking to deepen students’ Constitutional knowledge and amplify civic engagement in local schools and communities.

Justice officials, educators, business partners and community leaders gathered in Costa Mesa on Thursday, April 11 to celebrate the launch of the Orange County Civic Learning Partnership, aimed at equipping the next generation with the rights and responsibilities that are foundational to American democracy.

“This is very important to us, what we are doing here in terms of civics,” Orange County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares told the 50 or so local leaders who gathered in the OCDE Board Room. “It is not just a subject that we’re looking at from a distance. It is essential. It is critical, especially in a day and age when we find that people don’t want to talk with one another anymore, and we’ve drawn lines as Americans.”

Inspired to collaborate

Other speakers included Orange County Superior Court Judge Linda Marks and Richard Porras, regional vice president for external affairs at AT&T and a High School Inc. Foundation board member. Both were part of a small group that brainstormed the partnership after hearing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy speak at a civic learning summit in Sacramento in 2017.

Two years later, their goal is for Orange County students to graduate with an enhanced understanding of how their government works, along with experience addressing real-world issues and confidence in their ability to improve society. Officials also see potential to benefit college and career readiness and school climates.

County superintendent and three students
Orange County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares, left, leads a panel discussion with Jasmine Chhabria of Northwood High School, Rose Chhabria of Brywood Elementary School and Joshua Suh of Cypress High. (Photos by Paul Gibson)

“I hope by your attendance today that you will be inspired to collaborate,” Judge Marks said. “Without sharing information like this within our community, we really don’t know what each of us is doing to help and promote. … It’s just a question of imagination with regard to how we can bring civics education into the classroom and really assist the students in being great citizens who understand our democracy.”

Marks said the initial collaboration has already resulted in a teachers’ law school program and a recurring courthouse field trip for students at Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School in Santa Ana.

Porras said businesses needed to be involved with the effort to share the kinds of skills that benefit employers. He told the audience he personally had a lot to learn about government as he ascended the ranks at AT&T.

“I know you’re always trying to do everything for our kids,” Porras said. “So I’m really hoping that we can take off from today and really do a lot of things that will prepare these kids, because there are a lot of jobs out there, but the less prepared they are, we’re not going to pick them up.”

A force to reckon with

Midway through the meeting, Mijares engaged three students in a panel discussion about their experiences with civic learning. Each offered compelling insight on what civic learning has meant to them.

“All of these little laws, little rules, that change my perspective about how intricate and how beautiful our government is, because it’s withstood so many storms,” Northwood’s Jasmine Chhabria said. “But these laws, these little tiny rules that unfortunately not many students even know about, are really holding it together and allowing students to empathize with each other, because when they are given this liberty, this freedom, they really can connect and really have bright futures together.”

OCDE Chief Academic Officer Jeff Hittenberger later led a group exercise designed to identify the county’s top civic learning priorities. Participants stressed the importance of empathy, the humanities and helping students navigate social media.

Former Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Maria D. Hernandez wrapped up the event, calling on educators and justice officials to “kind of stir that pot” by sharing what they’ve learned with their colleagues and looking for opportunities to get young people involved. She added that the group would convene again.

“We need to not duplicate services,” Hernandez said. “We need not to silo anymore. We need to take what we have, and what we have in this room is a force to reckon with, so we need to build on it.”

Hittenberger confirmed more information would follow and said the department was planning “a major convening” on civic learning set to take place in early 2020.

“We want to have students involved, teachers involved, people across sectors involved,” Hittenberger said. “So what we’ll do is invite you back in September to regroup and to say, ‘Here’s what’s coming and how can we all be part of making it happen.’”