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Cleveland Metropolitan School District program gets students involved with the democratic process

Civics 2.0 founder Gayle Gadison speaks to a crowd of CMSD students participating in the civic-engagement program in early September 2022 at the Western Reserve Historical Society
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Civics 2.0 founder Gayle Gadison speaks to a crowd of CMSD students participating in the civic-engagement program in early September 2022 at the Western Reserve Historical Society

Students at Cleveland Metropolitan School District dove head first into a world of information about civics, democracy and elections last week during a launch event for CMSD’s Civics 2.0 program.

Civics 2.0 is now in its second year at CMSD. Through it, students have been trained to work at the polls in Cuyahoga County, have created voter registration campaigns, organized events with their teacher-advisers and much more.

The program had a kick-off event at the Western Reserve Historical Society last week, where students learned about the 2022 election and figured out strategies to counter narratives about voting not mattering, according to program materials.

Program creator Gayle Gadison said the goal of the project is to get students involved in the civic process by participating in it themselves. The students who participate are also paid a $500 gift card for each quarter that they work.

“This is authentic learning at its best because they are compensated for doing the work,” Gadison said. “And so because of that, they are learning how to budget their money, and they are learning that this work does have value.”

The program has advisers in each school who coordinate the projects of the individual students. Mary Brown, science educator at the John Marshall School of Engineering, is an adviser who worked with students last year and will continue to do so this year.

“Last year, my students learned about the importance of advocacy,” Brown said.

To that end, students at John Marshall registered 30 people to vote last year and organized a panel where students heard from local leaders like several Cleveland City Council members and got to ask questions of the leaders, Brown said.

“This is a great way to inspire our students to care about community, be service-minded and to see themselves as leaders,” she said. “And that’s huge.”

Gadison said prior to Civics 2.0, voter registration efforts at CMSD were mostly done by outside parties who worked with CMSD to come into the schools and do registration of students who were of age, with varying levels of success.

Zachary Zlocki, a social studies teacher at New Tech West High School, said the program means students get to try new things.

“I’m a government teacher, so they get to really understand politics, elections, and government that much better and hopefully engage in the process that much more deeply,” he said.

Some students attended the YMCA’s Youth and Government program in Columbus last year and will again this year, where they learn how the statehouse works through a mock version of it.

Zlocki said a few of his students had their bills pass the student legislature in that program, and one was even signed by the student version of the governor. The proposal was for Ohio to create a bottle buyback program at local stores, to promote recycling, he said.

The program also compensates students for creating civics-related content for the Unsilenced Voices of CMSD, a student blog.

“Hopefully Civics 2.0 will become a movement because what I know is if young people are impassioned enough… once they become inspired, there’s no stopping them,” Gadison said.

Prior to joining Ideastream Public Media, Conor Morris was paid through the Civics 2.0 program to run the Unsilenced Voices of CMSD blog over the summer. He now volunteers to run the blog and is not paid for that work.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.