Guest Blog: What Should We Expect From Public Education?

by Sue Khalaieff, Democracy Schools Network Manager

Over the past school year, the Illinois Humanities Council has sponsored a statewide series of free public programs called Continuing Ed, which have focused on the future of Illinois public schools. Events have been held in Chicago, Elgin, Decatur and Southern Illinois throughout the year. On Thursday, April 20th, I attended their discussion in Elgin which focused on what we should expect from public education. The roundtable discussion featured Tony Sanders (CEO of U-46), Rev. Nathaniel Edmond (Second Baptist Church), Julia McClendon (YWCA of Elgin), Karen Merchant (Bartlett HS parent), Tish Calhamer (Gail Borden Library), Madeline Villalobos (Parent Leadership Institute alumna), Tracy Occomy (Community Organization and Family Issues), and Mike Demovsky (Bartlett HS principal). The roundtable discussion was led by Denise Ahlquist of The Great Books Foundation.

I left that session feeling invigorated, inspired and better equipped to do battle with the forces that challenge the schools in our state. The diverse panel, the engaged audience, and a roomful of stakeholders who are so deeply committed to public education provided compelling evidence that bringing people together for this kind of conversation is a powerful civics lesson. There was great Democracy School representation in this round table as U-46 includes both Bartlett High School (a 2006 Democracy School) and Streamwood High School (a 2016 Democracy School).

“What should we expect from public education?” almost could have been entitled "Why every school should be a Democracy School?” as our themes were consistent throughout the discussion. Voice, equity, participation, civil discourse, developing citizens in a democratic society, getting feedback from stakeholders, empowerment, and community partnerships were all mentioned as key factors in what we should expect from our schools.

The format allowed the audience to interact with the panel; in fact, the actual “presentation” part of the evening took up only about one-third of the time. The majority of the ninety-minute program encouraged community members to comment on the remarks of the panel, as well as voice their own concerns and recommendations. What became very evident is that this combination of dedication, innovation and communication is allowing Elgin schools to positively address their issues and create a more positive future for their students.

Chicago is sponsoring their last session of the series, titled, Our School II- What the City’s Done, What it Can Do, on May 17 at the Union League Club. If you are looking for an upbeat and constructive ending to your school year, do yourself a favor and check it out.

Philanthropy's Role in Strengthening America's Democracy

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

I was invited to take part in a panel discussion yesterday at the Council on Foundations preconference titled “Philanthropy’s Role in Strengthening America’s Democracy.” Hosted in Dallas, it featured a bi-partisan conversation led by the George W. Bush Institute and PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement), the latter of which the McCormick Foundation is a member.


I was specifically asked to weigh in on the question that reads as follows: “A dominant narrative right now is that we are a divided country—do you find this to be true in your work and in the communities you support? How do you see the work you focus on bridging divides, whether they be red/blue, urban/rural, or other divides?”

Our statewide work in Illinois within the field of civic education offers guidance on bridging ideological and geographic divides. Context matters a great deal in the field of civic education. A controversial issue in one region is settled in another. Service-learning assumes a different dimension in an urban area than a rural one. Research suggests that most of us follow the guidance of our grandparents to not discuss politics or religion. For the junkies among us, we're more likely to discuss politics among those with whom we agree, leading to the ideological amplification that increasingly cripples our democracy.

It is in America's classrooms where we have a chance to alter course, as students enter with surprisingly heterogeneous views, even in deep red or blue places. Moreover, their views are not as entrenched as their adult peers, and they are in the hands of educators with the training (or at least the potential) to facilitate difficult political conversations across difference.

Another important avenue for youth civic development is engaging them beyond elections. True, they have consequences, but the winners represent us all and we are obliged to work with them through the public policy process that follows.

Many issues have local resonance and are often less ideological than those that play out at the state or national levels. Moreover, politics is a game of addition, and policy making often requires the building of bipartisan majorities across legislative bodies and branches of government.

Our successful legislative push two years ago for a civics course requirement offers abundant examples as we built strong bipartisan majorities in the Illinois General Assembly controlled by a Democratic supermajority, and later pivoted to earn a Republican governor's signature.

A couple of my favorite stories from the campaign stem from the advocacy of civics teachers and their students. One House Education Committee member voted against our bill in committee, but was responsive to the outreach of a local teacher as the bill made its way to the floor. She spoke at length with him by phone and later rose during the debate to confess that she "was schooled by a social studies teacher" and had changed her vote to "yea."

While doing reconnaissance on the Senate side prior to their own floor vote, we reached a Senator that was leaning against the bill, but was struggling as he stared at a stack of letters written by students in his district encouraging him to do the opposite. He later was among the 46 senators voting yes (out of 55) and sending the bill to the governor.

Civic education is bigger than red-blue, urban-suburban-rural divides. It's about the future of our democracy. Local context considered, best practices remain central to youth civic development and must be offered universally. Illinois' civic health may be on life support, but the prognosis for its long-term recovery and flourishing is strong thanks to the fruits of the #CivicsIsBack Campaign.

Guest Blog: Space to be Heard

by Brad Hubbard, Ed.D, Principal, Antioch Community High School

Foreword by Sonia Mathew, Civic Learning Manager, Robert R. McCormick Foundation
Over 200 attendees participated in the Democracy Schools Network Convening which took place last month on March 9-10 with the theme “Students as Agents of Change”. This year, we recognized and celebrated 13 new Democracy Schools that joined the network. The Network now encompasses 54 high schools with representation in Chicago, its surrounding suburbs, the Metro East region outside of St. Louis, and both Central and Southern Illinois. Dr. Amber Kim from the University of Colorado gave a keynote address which emphasized the importance of breaking down barriers that limit student voice in schools. Special thanks to Brad Hubbard, Principal of Antioch Community High School (2015 Democracy School), in Antioch, Illinois for sharing his powerful reflection on Dr.Kim’s keynote address.


"We must be able to sit in the pain and pride of a student's narrative."

- Dr. Amber Kim


Dr. Kim teaches and talks about "equity literacy." She sees her work as anti-oppression work. Meaning, we have to create systems and spaces in schools that do not oppress or silence individuals or groups of students. Her message was powerful, poignant, timely, thought-provoking, and emotional. She told a number of stories, used great videos, and shared some important realizations that she has discovered. Two of the messages I feel compelled to share, are as follows:

1. There is no such thing as the voiceless. Everyone has a voice. With that said, there are certainly situations in which voices are not expressed, heard, or permitted to matter. Dr. Kim argues that we need to create the space in which voices are afforded real opportunities to be heard and matter. She says that true voice must include expression and power. We need to create systems and environments in which everyone feels their voice is valued, critical, welcomed, and influential. Voice is so critical in the creation of the circumstances in which people can learn and flourish. We talk so much about relationships, but those relationships are not deep, genuine, or impactful if the voices within those relationships are not real, respected, and taken into account. We talk about student voice and work to provide opportunities for it to be heard. As I step back and look at the systems we have in place, if I am being honest, there are explicit and implicit barriers within our structure that deter, impede, and/or dismiss the voice of some of our stakeholders. I...we...can do better. One way is make sure the voices we solicit have power...that leads me to my next takeaway.

2. We need to foster within our learning community, the idea that everyone's voice has power. We cannot solicit it, pretend to hear it, and then move on as previously planned. We need to create multiple opportunities for all of our stakeholders, especially our students, to be able to articulate their needs and see action as a result. We need to share and, in some cases, hand over the decision-making power and demonstrate trust in our students throughout a process of sharing leadership. Our students' voices are the most critical in the equation of education. But, it is hard to want to engage and exercise voice when there are no results. So, I know I need to be, and I suspect we all could be, more cognizant of the explicit and implicit ways I am silencing or not hearing the voices of our students...all of them.

Dr. Kim told a story about voice and power that made me tear up. She said her husband was tickling their young daughter one night and while she was laughing and have a fun time, she was saying, "stop." Now, I do this with my girls all the time...in fact, Bryn thinks I am "the world's best tickler." They say, "stop" regularly and it never phases me, so long as it is said in the playful way. On that night, however, Dr. Kim later said to her husband, "When she says stop, I'm going to need you to stop." Her husband at first questioned it, but Dr. Kim went on to articulate that their daughter needs to know her voice has power. When she says, "stop," she ought expect that whoever she is speaking to, even if it is dad, stops. I could not agree more and this weekend, I was intentional about stopping and starting to ensure that Calla and Bryn know their voices have power.

While this story hit me as a father, it also resonates as an educator. Our students have voices and they are using them all the time. We need to find ways of not just allowing, encouraging, and permitting them. Rather, we need to truly hear, offer some power to, and continue creating the spaces for students to share, speak up, ask, disagree, and/or use their voice.

I want to thank Dr. Kim for such an inspiring and moving keynote on Friday. It has had me thinking...

Guest Blog: Democracy is a Verb

by John Pellikan, McHenry County Teacher Mentor

“Democracy is a verb”. I must have said that phrase over 100 times in the past couple of years. Each time I said it, I was usually engaged in some type of endeavor to mobilize others to take action. I told myself that my action was to get others to take action. Not necessarily an unimportant role, but, in many ways, I ultimately felt like a hypocrite. What was I really taking action to do? Holding an elected office was something I never really thought I would ever do. After all, who am I to be elected? Did I really want to go through the process of begging people for support?


When I found out that our local elementary school district (Dist. #47) had 2 open positions, I realized that this was my opportunity. Hence, I followed the lead of my friend and colleague Curt Wadlington (who actually ran for the same board 2 years ago) and joined with another friend and colleague Jonathan Powell to become certified write-in candidates. We have both been very fortunate to have won spots on the board and eagerly look forward to serving the community and our children.

We have passionate teachers and administrators in District #47 who work very hard to assure our students are receiving the best education possible. As a school board member, I will work to support teacher’s efforts and empower them to inspire their students to be curious, to take actions with those curiosities and to achieve significant growth in their knowledge and skills. I do feel, though, that there are enough people on school boards who are worried about test scores and other metrics of so-called academic achievement.


What we need are more people worried about the development of literate citizens. Ultimately, therefore, my biggest agenda item is to help our district grow in fulfilling the civic mission of schools. Our students need to become literate citizens who take action to answer the question ‘how should we live together?’ Schools across America need to work hard to achieve this mission and my hope is to work with the amazing teachers in D47 to develop justice oriented citizens emboldened by a rich civic education.

I have been very blessed in my professional career in that I get to work as a teacher, an administrator, and a civic education mentor for the McHenry County ROE. My hope is to extend these efforts to our local elementary school board and, therefore, have a wide-reaching impact on the field of education in order to help our schools best achieve the civic mission of schools. After all, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “A democratic form of government, a democratic way of life, presupposes free public education” and our schools would do well to take note.

Practicing What We Preach

by Barb Laimins, Teacher Mentor Liaison

Several weeks ago, I was asked to be part of a steering committee that would work for the passage of a referendum that would renovate, replace aging infrastructure in my local high school. My initial thought was I don’t have time for that but then a little voice in my head spoke up. You should practice what you preach so I joined the committee.

Armed with my Fitbit, pamphlets and signs, I hit the streets of my local community. Knocking on doors with the belief, who could possibly be against children, education and good schools? I posted incessantly on social media while monitoring my phone, like a teenager, waiting for the outpouring of support. I cajoled my neighbors, approached strangers as they shopped wearing my Yes sticker and ventured beyond my bubble of friends who were liked minded.


There were surprises along the way. Some were fearful to put a sign in their yard because they didn’t want to sufferer repercussions from neighbors. A National Anti-Tax group made robocalls and sent mailers to vote NO despite the fact they had no information, no solutions or cared about the facts. Others, were pleased to be asked for their support. Former students joined in, placed signs and rallied their friends. Senior citizens on fixed incomes were effusive in the support to make sure students had opportunities in the future.

The committee gathered on election night anxiously awaiting the outcome. As the results trickled in, we bantered back and forth about what we did, what we should have done and what we could have done. Each of us hoping that our message had been received by those who went to the polls. When the final tally was posted, there was an audible sigh of relief quickly followed by expressions of pure joy. The referendum passed.

Reflecting on the experience, I realize I’ve become more resilient after being told no way multiple times in a row. But more importantly, I feel a stronger connection to my community, have reconnected with neighbors and made new friends. I can’t wait for the next election cycle to volunteer and be part of what we preach.


Guest Blog: Service Learning that Promotes Student Agency

by Sharon Smogor, Social Studies Teacher, Carmel Catholic High School, DSN Advisory Council Member

Service learning can have many different faces, as aptly demonstrated by a presentation team of teachers and students, in a session entitled “Service Learning that Promotes Student Agency” at this year’s Democracy Schools Annual Convening on Friday, March 10th. Grisel Granados, AP Spanish teacher at Carmel Catholic High School; Jamie Nash-Mayberry, Social Studies teacher at Shawnee High School; and Drew McLane and Abbey Livesay, Seniors at Shawnee High School related details of projects that they have been involved in that promote student voice and students acting as agents of change.


The Shawnee project on “Saving the Levees” has been in place for about 7 years and draws attention to the failing levees in the area. It has become a centerpiece of service leaning and student voice to the extent that the middle school students look forward to continuing the work. The Carmel Catholic project, which is in its pilot stage, involved AP Spanish Language and Culture students exploring global issues of poverty and education. Students took action through creating public service announcements and writing letters to government officials.

In both cases, teachers helped the students choose an authentic cause in the community that students were passionate about and were willing to commit to developing short and long term goals and strategies. The importance of preparation for the project was emphasized; towards this goal, students participated in team building exercises and question framing before beginning their research. Collaboration was also an essential ingredient in both projects. Students did the research, contacted community members, created their action plans and—very importantly--took ownership of their project. Students engaged in reflection at every step of the project, thus cementing the learning. In addition, students learned some very practical skills: how to use the media, how to contact and interact with members of the community, how to work with a team, and how to resolve conflict.

Their projects also offered great potential for cross curricular learning. For example, the Shawnee students worked with the Science department on research as well as other groups at school for marketing and publicity. The Carmel students worked with a few government/civics classes and conducted a model senate simulation using "bills" they created that were related to the topic of poverty and education and supported the outreach to government officials.

As shown by these two schools, service learning is an excellent vehicle for effective civic education and engagement across the curriculum, especially when supported by the school mission and culture.

Repeal, Replace, and Retreat? The Death and Life of the Affordable Care Act

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

A mere 65 days into his presidency, Donald Trump was forced to retreat from one of the few singular promises of his campaign: to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The anatomy of this capitulation is worthy of further exploration in a civics classroom and is framed here in the paragraphs at follow.

Seven years ago, President Barack Obama signed the ACA, arguably his singular legislative achievement. Twenty million Americans have since gained coverage through the combination of expanded eligibility for Medicaid and private health care exchanges with subsidized premiums based on one’s ability to pay them. In exchange for a requirement to purchase health insurance, Americans benefited from guaranteed access regardless of pre-existing conditions and the ability for young adults to remain on their parents’ plan until the age of 26.

The roll out of the ACA left much to be desired and it proved unpopular at the polls, with Democrats sustaining historic losses in 2010, 2014, and 2016, all correlated with the Republican campaign mantra that the ACA was and is a disastrous policy. Moreover, despite the aforementioned coverage gains, health insurance premiums continued to rise in private markets as fewer younger, healthier Americans signed up than projected. They opted instead to pay annual fines. This undermined the cross-subsidization principle embedded in the ACA and health insurance more generally, where younger, healthier enrollees pay premiums, but draw less from the system than their older, sicker peers.

Obamacare replacement brainstorming session

Republicans recaptured the House of Representatives in 2010 and have since voted dozens of times to repeal the ACA. These measures were always symbolic given that President Obama wielded a veto pen and Democrats maintained control of the Senate until 2014. As of this January, Republicans became the dog that finally caught the car, and the onus fell on them to not only repeal the ACA, but also to construct an acceptable replacement.

Their plan, the American Health Care Act, arrived four weeks ago today. It proposed to eliminate the individual mandate and also the penalty paid by large employers that failed to provide private coverage. Medicaid eligibility would also be scaled back, and in exchange for premium supports would be tax credits based on age instead of income.

The Republican plan was met with immediate scorn from both conservatives and moderates within the party’s own ranks. Conservatives claimed that it was only a watered-down version of the ACA, and moderates worried about Congressional Budget Office projections that 14 million Americans would lose coverage in the first year alone. Older Americans would face exponentially higher premiums, a core constituency for Trump’s GOP.

While Republicans in the House have a comfortable majority, these two factions, combined with stiff opposition from Democrats, meant that the American Health Care Act lacked the 218 votes necessary to pass. It was subsequently pulled 17 days after introduction, a stinging defeat for the new President and unified Republican control in Washington (By comparison, the ACA was signed into law 14 months into the Obama presidency).

President Trump and Speaker Ryan have since claimed they will allow the ACA to crumble on its own, vowing to move onto tax reform and infrastructure spending. Assuming the absence of Democratic dance partners, Republicans will need to find a way to bridge the fiscally conservative and populist wings of the party to achieve substantive change.

Moreover, President Trump will need to immerse himself more deeply in the nuances of public policy. “Repeal and replace” made for a useful campaign slogan, but the devil truly is in the details as presidents that have grappled with health reform throughout history learned the hard way.