Mesa High School senior Karina Rivera remembered the moment when she realized her school was special.
The 18-year-old was sitting in class when a student announced that she needed volunteers to help her family at an animal shelter. Rivera expected a few people to offer to lend a hand, but instead, half of her class stood up.
“I got to thinking about that and I don’t think there are many other schools where people want to help each other like this,” Rivera said.
Experiences like these are just one of the reasons why the Arizona Department of Education has recognized Mesa High School and five other Mesa Unified School District campuses as statewide leaders in the newly formed Excellence in Civic Engagement Program. Rivera, along with students, faculty and administrators from all of the recognized schools, were honored Tuesday by state officials during a ceremony held at the Sheraton Crescent Hotel in Phoenix.
According to the Arizona Department of Education, 20 schools were recognized by the program as “demonstrating a significant understanding and implementation of the six proven practices in civic learning.” Of the 20, five Mesa high schools — Dobson, Mesa, Red Mountain, Skyline and Westwood — were named “Schools of Distinction” with a sixth, Mountain View High School, named among the “Schools of Merit.” Schools of Distinction are those that demonstrate a “significant understanding” of the six proven practices and Schools of Merit demonstrate a “partial understanding.” Chandler’s Hamilton High School and Higley High School in Gilbert were also named “schools of merit.”
Arizona Department of Education spokesperson Kristen Landry said the schools were evaluated in their understanding and implementation of the following six proven practices in civic learning:
• Classroom Instruction in Government, History, Law and Democracy
• Discussion of current events and controversial issues
• Service Learning
• Extracurricular activities
• Student participation in school governance
• Simulations in democratic processes and procedures
“Obviously we’re really happy and exhilarated that all six schools were recognized,” said Patrick Walsh, director for creative and performing arts and service learning for Mesa Public Schools.
Walsh, who first learned about the program through a committee he is a part of, knew that his district was a leader in the area of civic engagement, so he approached his superintendent about applying. Now that the results have been published, Walsh said the district will review the findings and seek ways to improve.
Some of the specific programs that brought the Mesa high schools to the top of the list were the interactive and competitive “We the People” class, which is available at four of the high schools, the Service Learning program, Project Citizen, speech and debate programs, clubs and other programs, such as student council, that give the students a voice on campus.
“People need to know that teenagers very much want to be involved in their community and enjoy being engaged in the process,” said Theresa Ratti, service learning coach and social studies instructor at Mesa High School. “A lot of the time, people brush teenagers aside ... but they can be a major resource in a service program because of their energy and abilities.”
In Ratti’s “We the People” class at Mesa High School, she has seen many students over the years go from being withdrawn and unengaged in their education to active members of their community through volunteering on political campaigns and getting involved in important causes.
“Teachers in Mesa Public schools really want their kids to get involved and they set them up with real life skills through these programs,” said Terri Welsh, who oversees social studies curriculum and instruction for Mesa Public Schools.
While the Mesa district is considered a leader in civic engagement statewide, officials know that there are many schools nationally and across Arizona that are lagging, so this is why officials started the Excellence in Civic Engagement Program last year.
“The Excellence in Civic Engagement Program was founded on research drawn from the ‘Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools Report’ that describes the steady decline and lack of focus in our nation and schools on civic learning,” Landry said.
The decline has led to decreased civic involvement from students, less support for and knowledge of American institutions, values and history, and lower levels of trust in government and elected public officials, Landry said.
“This program is designed to recognize and support the important role schools play in ensuring our students are informed and engage citizens,” Landry said.
The program’s goal is also to provide additional training to educators to help them improve in the six proven practice areas of civic learning.
Skyline High School AP U.S. History and “We the People” instructor Nancie Lindblom — who is Arizona’s 2013 Teacher of the Year and was recently honored in person by President Obama — said that schools have a tendency to put the “idea of civic mindedness on the backburner” because of the focus placed on testing in the areas of math, science and reading.
“The idea that we are now actually recognizing a program in schools for creating great citizens, I just thought ‘This is wonderful,’” Lindblom said. “When you get that recognition, it just shows the kids one more reason why it is important to be aware of the world and how we can impact it.”
Rivera believes the opportunity to get involved in so many civic engagement activities both on and off campus has given her a fulfilling high school experience. Rivera has more than 400 recorded hours of community service and participates in Student Council and the Advancement via Individual Determination program. She also mentors incoming freshman.
“Since our high school is its own community, it has taught me to reach out into the larger community itself,” Rivera said. “I don’t play sports or do music or anything, but I live to serve.”
Go to www.azed.gov/civicengagement to see all the schools recognized in the Excellence in Civic Engagement Program.