Like just about everywhere, at Elk Grove High School in Illinois, we spend large amounts of time and energy—not to mention financial capital—in meeting the needs of students who have found success in school to be increasingly difficult.
Faced with this reality, a veteran social science teacher, Jim Arey, approached the administration at our school. He volunteered to lead a pilot course for sophomores that would use a civics focus to connect students needing an alternative to the traditional tenth-grade world history requirement. Teachers and counselors identified students to participate, and the results, after one year, have been overwhelmingly positive.
An Innovative Approach to Teaching Civic Engagement
Arey has spent much of his teaching career focusing on connecting students to the world around them using education as a direct link to civic engagement. For years, he led a service-focused program that provided students with opportunities to make improvements to their communities by directly linking up with local citizens, organizations, and programs to address the needs of community members. That program eventually ended.
However, drawing on past experience, in 2018 Arey suggested and implemented a new approach called the Sophomore Leadership Cohort, which would be open to about 80 sophomores (in a class of about 475). He used his proven ideas and community contacts to initiate a yearlong opportunity where students research community issues, evolving into direct action by students to help solve those problems. A major difference between the two programs was the focus this time around on struggling sophomores, as opposed to being open to any student interested.
Arey teamed up with two of his colleagues—English teacher Kristen Guth Lesniak and physical education teacher Samir Chaudry—believing that an interdisciplinary approach would allow for students to spend a greater amount of time on their chosen community issues and also to ensure that students understood how civic engagement can play a role throughout the school day. By creating a three-period block for the program, our teachers developed a unique daily structure allowing for field trips, guest speakers, and in-depth research time. Students learned the details about what had caused the issue in the first place and really dove into realistic ways to solve the problem at hand.