Kids Around Town

Civic Education through Democratic Action

by Ann L. Rappoport and Sharon B. Kletzien
Teaching for civic efficacy is a major priority in elementary school education. In an effort to address controversial issues, teachers may oversimplify them and substitute rote-if well-intentioned-community service projects that are not well-integrated into the curriculum. Classrooms across Pennsylvania, however, are engaged in a program called Kids Around Town (KAT) that develops in young citizens a range of skills and strategies for understanding public policy and participating directly in their community's decision-making processes.
The youngsters in KAT select a public policy issue that interests them, and proceed to conduct research, analyze arguments and data, and attempt to solve problems. Kids Around Town won the 1995 Program of Excellence Award from the Pennsylvania Council for the Social Studies. The program, a local government education model, was developed through support from the Citizen Education Fund of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania. The league piloted the program in nine school districts over a two-year period in association with West Chester University, and it is currently being implemented at a multitude of sites.

Leidy School's Fifth Grade Project
Fifth graders from the Leidy School in Philadelphia decided to participate in Kids Around Town, and needed to select a community issue for their project. During preliminary planning sessions, teachers and community volunteers identified local issues that were problematic, such as abandoned housing, environmental concerns, and recreational facilities. Speakers, including a representative from Philadelphia's Fairmount Park Commission and a neighborhood builder involved in housing renovation, were invited to discuss these issues with the children. Resources would allow students to take on one issue only as a project, and it was agreed that majority vote would determine the choice. Despite the preference of the majority of adults for focusing attention on the water quality of a local pond in Fairmount Park, the children favored the issue of abandoned housing and voted accordingly.

From the start, lessons of resource allocation, persuasion, compromise, and civic priorities were learned and internalized by the students. They took advantage of a variety of resources in order to become experts on the topic of abandoned housing. They asked local experts to preview problems and field questions. They read newspapers, attended school board and township meetings, and took "mind walks" through the neighborhood.

It is fair to note that several teachers who have implemented KAT began their projects with some degree of anxiety. Leidy School teachers acknowledged that they knew nothing about abandoned housing before becoming engaged in this issue, and they wondered, "How do you teach something you know nothing about?" These teachers noted later that their involvement in the KAT program reawakened the lifelong learner in them, and helped them provide fine role models for their students.

East Stroudsburg Third Graders
For one year, third graders in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, examined issues of land development and open space. They wondered why recreational facilities and the open space earmarked for their community were disappearing as more and more families moved to the area. They studied the arguments and evidence provided by different perspectives represented in their community. They learned how to sort out scare tactics and bias as well as smooth marketing or propaganda techniques. They visited sites involved in controversy, and interviewed elected officials and private proponents involved in the public policy debates. The third graders did not emerge from their study with one point of view. Instead, they spoke clearly about the role of taxes, the level of public services that taxes could purchase, and the trade-offs involved in various zoning decisions. When these students articulated their personal opinions about a given policy choice, they girded their opinions with well-informed arguments.

Research and analysis played a vital role in the curriculum for the East Stroudsburg third graders. As they cultivated a just, civilized social fabric, they used a systematic inquiry approach for truth, understanding, knowledge, and explanation. They learned data gathering methods and used a variety of information sources. Through analysis, their minds were opened, their prejudices were challenged, and their opinions became informed. These key components of the Kids Around Town program are realities of democratic choice, because without them the choices made by a majority might be capricious and arbitrary rather than rational.

Seeking Solutions and Taking Action
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing," according to British statesman and political philosopher Edmund Burke over 200 years ago. In the Kids Around Town program, kids do not "do nothing." They live their study in the real world, building connections that bridge school and neighborhood. KAT encourages students to ask about issues: So what? What difference does this make? What, if anything, can be done, and how? Not every KAT study lends itself to unified action or simple solution. The youngsters in East Sroudsville, for example, did not arrive at a consensus, but they did develop an outline of pros and cons based on their research. Third grade students in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, restored a local playground after a study about community property. In a project on school safety, they submitted a set of proposals to their local school board. These included some modifications of rules, requests for funding, and permission to make and hang a series of signs in designated places around local schools. The school board granted the students' requests.

Students from Spring Hill School in Pittsburgh presented recommendations to their city council about youth curfew ordinances based on their research about the experience of other major cities throughout the country. Because of the responsible civic behavior of the Spring Hill youngsters, the city council voted to study the proposal.

The Kids Around Town program offers measures of process and product. Clear objectives and performance standards exist for authentic assessment. Realistic culminating scenarios are suggested, along with appropriate scoring rubrics. By the time KAT students complete their projects, they have developed a multifaceted record of growth. They have collected a "trail," or portfolio, that may consist of activity logs, journal writing, letters, surveys, tabulations, graphs, maps, speeches, word banks, posters, models, and booklets. Assessments are performed by teachers and by students through self-evaluation. The KAT model suggests that teachers use an observation checklist of specific abilities, such as "checks accuracy of information" and "examines different perspectives" to evaluate students, and that students respond to public policy scenarios that describe fairly typical local issue dilemmas. A possible assessment dilemma might be: "Some people in your town want to build a new fire station. Naturally, some people disagree. How would you decide what your town should do? What would you do with your decision?"

Scoring rubrics outline and allocate points according to important competencies mastered, such as "recognizing the importance of studying the issue before arriving at an opinion," or "having the ability to weigh advantages and disadvantages of possible solutions." A student who expresses an opinion about the fire house controversy without first indicating the need to ask questions and research the facts would receive a score of 1 on a scale of 1 to 4. A score of 4 would go to students who demonstrate clearly that it would be necessary to study the issue and explore alternatives. The scenarios could also serve as a pre-test to ascertain a base level of student understanding.

The KAT program does not teach students a specific moral or social attitude; rather, KAT gives students lifelong learning strategies with which they can effectively, realistically, and responsibly deal with civic, moral, and social issues. It coaches youngsters in their practice of community behavior and civic initiative. One teacher commented, "Participating in KAT takes a lot of flexibility ... but it was the most rewarding thing I've ever done as an educator in 13 years!"

About the Authors
Ann L. Rappoport is an educational program consultant who has taught political science and writing. Sharon Kletzien is an assistant professor in the Department of Childhood Studies and Reading at West Chester University.