PHOTO: From left, EPHS Assistant Principal Sheri Costello, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Nicolas Wade, and EPHS Social Studies teachers Mario Fiorito and Anthony Sylvester attend the recent ceremony for new Illinois Democracy Schools. (Photo courtesy of Mrs. Mary Bruscato)
On a Friday afternoon in March, as sports fans around the nation turned their attention to the NCAA college basketball playoffs, Mr. Mario Fiorito's Civics students were busy filling out their tournament brackets.
No, they weren't figuring out who would advance to the NCAA men's title game. Instead, they were using the tournament format to determine the relative importance of U.S. federal departments. State vs. Labor? Justice vs. Energy?
To make meaningful picks, the students had to understand what each department does, and then they had to prioritize those functions and powers. In short, they had to engage in civic learning. And they did so while sharpening their critical thinking skills, exercising their powers of persuasion — could they make the case for their selections? — and just plain having fun. (The tournament champion, by the way, was Homeland Security.)
This is what civic education is like at Elmwood Park High School, and it's just one illustration of why EPHS has been named an Illinois Democracy School in recognition of how well it prepares students to become informed and active citizens.
PHOTO: Social Studies teacher Mario Fiorito prepares a U.S. executive branch tournament bracket for his Civics students to fill out just in time for March Madness.
Welcome to the Democracy Schools Network
EPHS was one of 13 schools honored in March as the newest members of the Democracy Schools Network, an initiative sponsored by the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.
"We are a school that takes pride in civic learning," said Mr. Fiorito. "For us, civic learning is not just a class. It's implemented schoolwide. Civics is used not only as a tool to teach students but as a tool to bring our community and school closer together. It provides our kids voice within the school and within the community so that they can feel like they have the power to make change and know how to go about making that change the correct way."
The 2016 Democracy Schools were recognized at a ceremony held March 9 in Wheaton.
Besides Mr. Fiorito, who spoke on behalf of EPHS, the attendees for District 401 included Board of Education President Mrs. Mary Bruscato, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum & instruction Dr. Nicolas Wade, EPHS Assistant Principal Ms. Sheri Costello and EPHS Social Studies teacher Mr. Anthony Sylvester.
"I am very proud of all of the hard work the high school has put into becoming recognized as a Democracy School," Dr. Wade said. "We are one of a little over 50 schools to get achieve this title, and I feel the direction of the Social Studies curriculum and school climate will only be enhanced by our continued work to maintain this recognition."
PHOTO: Students begin their selections. Which federal department is the most important?
What Is a Democracy School?
Since 2006, only 54 schools have met the standards set for being named an Illinois Democracy School. Candidate schools must show a commitment to five elements that research has shown to be essential for high-quality civic learning:
► Vision & Leadership — A vision for the importance of civic learning, and the shared leadership to see it through
► Curriculum — A strategically designed curriculum that incorporates effective approaches to civic learning
► Teacher Hiring, Assessment & Professional Development — Hiring practices, performance reviews and professional development that assert and support the importance of effective civic learning
► School-Community Connections — Opportunities to involve the community in the school and the school in the community
► School Climate — A school climate that nurtures and models civic dispositions such as personal responsibility, student engagement in decision making, and mutual respect and tolerance
Along with EPHS, the other new Democracy Schools were Alton H.S., Collinsville H.S., Conant H.S., Curie Metro H.S., Lindblom Math and Science Academy, Mascoutah H.S., New Tech High @ Zion-Benton East, Normal Community H.S., Normal Community West H.S., Plainfield North H.S., Streamwood H.S. and Wheaton Warrenville South H.S.
PHOTO: The early rounds are easy. Now comes the hard part as the higher seeds battle it out.
How EPHS Became a Democracy School
EPHS’s initial involvement with the Democracy Schools program began several years ago when the General Assembly was in the process of approving a civics requirement for high school students, a proposal that became law in August 2015.
Building on this new interest in civics, EPHS Social Studies teachers saw the Democracy Schools initiative as a way to infuse the entire school with an appreciation for civic learning and citizen participation.
So they met with program officials and established goals for EPHS that focused on three areas:
► Student Voice — Giving students a sense of ownership of their school and a say about what’s going on around them
► Community Connection — Creating a stronger relationship between the high school and the community
► School Climate — Creating a positive community feel with the school
"We set out to achieve these goals through a variety of different ways," Mr. Fiorito said. "This included anything from revamping our student government to bringing in more members of our community within our classrooms and providing more opportunities for kids to get involved in the political process outside of the school."
PHOTO: And the winner is … Homeland Security. Taught as a semester-long course, Civics is offered primarily to EPHS freshmen.
Civics in the Curriculum
Along with these changes came the implementation of EPHS’s first full-fledged Civics course. Before 2015-16, when the course debuted, civics instruction had consisted of a unit within U.S. History, where students took a Constitution test.
Since the fall of 2015, Civics has been taught as a semester-long course required for all freshmen who don’t take AP Human Geography. The course is given each semester for three sections of 25 students each. By the end of 2016-17, approximately 300 students will have taken the course — and it has proven to be a hit.
Active learning is the key. Students learn what civic participation is by engaging in it themselves. This includes holding mock elections for class senator and conducting a mock trial. The two-day trial is a student favorite, according to Mr. Fiorito, and it requires a week and a half of preparation, with teams of lawyers for each side, expert witnesses for each team and a jury.
"Not all high schools went as far as creating a Civics class," Mr. Fiorito said. "I think we went a little above and beyond what was needed, but what we found was the Civics class is something our students love. It meets the state requirements and goes beyond. And it's something that we noticed we were lacking within our Social Studies Department."
PHOTO: Mario Fiorito displays the plaque EPHS received at the recent recognition ceremony for 2016 Democracy Schools hosted by the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.
The Future of Civic Learning in D401
Besides the positive response to Civics as a class, EPHS students have embraced other changes that have strengthened school culture and given students a greater sense of agency.
These include changes to student government, which last year began having formal elections. Running for EPHS student office now entails giving candidate speeches — "just like running for any political position would," Mr. Fiorito noted.
According to Dr. Wade, the success at the high school could lead to a more vibrant civic learning experience in other District 401 schools as well.
"I do feel that the positive reception by students and staff of what has occurred in our Civics curriculum can be further expanded into more of a districtwide civic education experience," Dr. Wade said. "This would be a move to have students become more involved in their buildings and the community. I am very optimistic about this possibility."