Photo: Former Governor Ed Rendell announces the Citizenship Challenge at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.
Reading, writing and arithmetic are still the building blocks of American education.
Civics and social studies? Not so much.
That’s why former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and Marjorie O. Rendell, Third Circuit Court of Appeals Judge, are challenging kids to become better citizens. Their Rendell Center for Civics and Civic Engagement launched its Citizenship Challenge in Western Pennsylvania in partnership with the Senator John Heinz History Center.
The Citizenship Challenge includes an essay contest for 4th and 5th graders, along with courses, workshops and webinars for K-12 teachers. A fun literacy-based mock trial for elementary school kids examines the case between “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”
The programs are designed to fill a gap in civics education in schools. According to a National Assessment of Educational Progress report, only 25 percent of U.S. students reach a proficient standard in civics.
But the subject is an important one. “Civics prepares you to be a better citizen, and better citizens produce better results for all our lives,” says Ed Rendell, pointing to the lack of participation in the electoral process, as an example, as well as a poor knowledge of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
“We don’t imbue our young people with a sense of how unusual the rights they have as Americans are,” he says, “and how along with those rights come certain responsibilities.”
The program pairs neatly with the history center’s America 101 initiative, which emphasizes the connection between history and civics.
“We like the idea that the Citizenship Challenge allows 4th and 5th graders — who are just starting to think about what it means to be citizens and what it means to be part of our community and our democracy and our country — a forum for writing and thinking about issues connected to citizenship,” says Dr. Mariruth Leftwich, director of education at the history center.
The Citizen Challenge had its start four years ago in Philadelphia-area schools. Enthusiasm for the program exceeded expectations with kids, Rendell says. “It’s amazing when you ask them their opinion, how excited they get.”
He’s especially impressed watching kids weigh evidence during those “Goldilocks” trials.
“Not only do they make sound arguments, they exhibit critical thinking that is advanced for any age,” he says. “My gut reaction is that kids would acquit Goldilocks 95 percent of the time. But kids convict Goldilocks about half the time.
“I’m very impressed with that because Goldilocks is a traditional childhood heroine, and yet the kids understand what she did was at least theft, maybe breaking and entering, and maybe burglary.”
The program also emphasizes the importance of civil discussions and debates. The Rendells are concerned by the often-vitriolic level of political disagreement. Civics education, they believe, can teach kids that shouting at each other is a prescription for failure.
“Things like the Citizenship Challenge allow us to think about issues that pertain to everyone and give you space to have those conversations,” Leftwich says.
The official kickoff for the Citizenship Challenge at the Senator John Heinz History Center is Sept. 17. Schools are invited to visit the history center that day to learn more about the Constitution and register for the Citizenship Challenge. The program is free to all school groups and home-school families, but reservations are required by registering online.