Citizenship enters classroom

The sweeping civics program also
creates a close-knit atmosphere
at Kealakehe High

When the school bell rings to start the day at Kealakehe High School, students in every classroom plunge into the same lesson, whether they are freshmen or ready to graduate.

With civic alienation running deep in America, this Big Island school is attracting national attention for its comprehensive program in citizenship, which centers on a 20-minute interactive homeroom.

"Citizenship is a class that you really can't teach from a textbook," said Christina Miyamoto, a senior at the school just north of Kailua-Kona. "Citizenship is a class that helps you in your everyday life to make good choices. Schools already assume that you know how to make good choices, but we don't."

In citizenship class, students grapple with ethical issues, current events and how to make democracy work. Every teacher at the school mentors a citizenship "ohana" of 25 students for four straight years, giving a rare personal dimension to this high school. At graduation, their citizenship teacher is the one who hands students their diplomas.

"After spending so much time with them, on graduation day, it's almost like having your own children graduate," said Alan Vogt, who has taught at the school since it opened in 1997.

For the 1,450 students on this sprawling 50-acre campus, citizenship class is "like our home base," said senior Kira Kojima. "You grow really close."

The curriculum is broad, embracing ethical codes from the Rotary Club's 4-Way Test to the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism. Students tackle concrete problems such as cheating in school and drug abuse, as well as deep questions such as "What is my purpose in life?" They examine democratic traditions and put them into practice, voting on school issues and volunteering in the community.

Curriculum coordinators Yanna Lewis and David Huitt produce the ever-evolving lesson plans, but students create much of the content that is broadcast live through closed-circuit television into classrooms, where the teenagers weigh in with their opinions. The program also airs each evening on public access television for parents and the community.

"I'm really proud of what they've done at Kealakehe," said John Minkler, co-chairman of the Task Force on Revitalizing Civic Education of the National Council for Social Studies. He visited the Waveriders' campus twice this year. "It's a model of civic education that I've shared with schools across the nation."

The Fresno, Calif.-based expert added: "The traditional method of teachers with a lecture and reading the book has a limited impact. The more students are engaged in the process of solving real problems in their school and community, the more they'll understand the challenges of citizenship."

Educators across the country lament what Minkler describes as "a serious civic disconnection in American youth today." Symptoms include dismal voter turnout among young people, lack of civility on many campuses, and skepticism about government and other institutions.

Kealakehe's citizenship program grew out of brainstorming sessions held by principal Wilfred Murakami and his staff before the school opened. They decided to focus on what the nation's founders considered the chief purpose of public education: producing competent citizens.

"Our free society is absolutely dependent on people caring about each other, volunteering and practicing good citizenship," Murakami said.

The program may also be helping ward off discipline problems. Kealakehe has the lowest rate of student suspensions among the six regular public high schools on the Big Island, according to Department of Education data. Murakami said the citizenship program helps unify the campus, and staff and students work to solve problems before they escalate.

Students must pass citizenship, a grade based largely on participation, in order to take part in co-curricular activities such as dances and graduation. Students earn one social studies credit over the four years of citizenship class.

Traditionally, civics is taught in ninth grade as a one-semester course in government that Kealakehe also requires. In contrast, Kealakehe's citizenship program requires a daily commitment by teachers who specialize in other subjects.

"It wouldn't succeed without buy-in of all the teachers," Vogt said. "Some teachers embrace it more than others. For the most part, it's been real successful. Some teachers feel put upon by this extra task. They just want to teach science all day long. They don't need one more thing. Others really take it and roll with it. Most teachers get very protective of these kids."

Lewis and Huitt, the program's coordinators, recently presented Kealakehe's Citizenship First program at the Showcase of Promising Practices sponsored by GEAR UP Hawaii, which works to steer more low-income students to college. Two Kaimuki High School teachers emerged from the conference room ready to sign up.

"We think every school should implement something like this," said Julie Onigama, who teaches family and consumer science. "Kids don't know between right and wrong. They do have to be told."

Her colleague, Jami Muranaka, agreed: "Disrespect and insubordination -- these are where most of our discipline problems are. That kind of stuff can be dealt with in citizenship class."

With graduation coming up, senior Ryan Boraten summed up what citizenship class means to him: "I see it as the ground level of what you need to do to be successful in life."


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