Reflecting on the Spring 2019 Democracy Schools Network Convening

by Scott McGallagher, Research Intern

The Spring 2019 Convening of the Democracy Schools Network brought together many familiar faces, and some new, who hold a stake in the civic development of young people in Illinois. Democracy Schools are high schools recognized for consciously promoting civic engagement by all students, focusing intentionally on fostering participatory citizenship and placing an emphasis on helping students understand how the fundamental ideals and principles of our democratic society relate to important current problems, opportunities, and controversies. Since 2006, 74 high schools have been recognized throughout Illinois for making this commitment to schoolwide civic learning.

The theme for this year’s convening revolved around “Lived Civics in Democracy Schools,” where the day provided opportunities to engage Democracy Schools Network (DSN) team leaders, administrators and Democracy Program partners to engage in this topic and reflect on Lived Civics principles as a foundation for Democracy Schools. Program Officer Sonia Mathew presented new indicators of civic efficacy that embed a Lived Civics framework and launched a new Democracy Schools assessment process to those gathered. Democracy Program Director Shawn Healyrounded out the day by energizing Network stakeholders with an overview of the Middle School Civics Bill, which is now heading to Governor Pritzker’s desk for signing!

The morning started with a warm welcome that set the context for Lived Civics with brief remarks from Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade from Chicago Public Schools. Afterwards, a panel discussion moderated by Jessica Marshall, PhD candidate from Northwestern University (and one of the co-authors of “Let’s Go There: Making the Case for Race, Ethnicity, and a Lived Civics Approach to Civic Education”), included panelists Michele Morales, CEO of Mikva Challenge; Courtney Barnes, UIC Graduate Student and Lindblom Math and Science Academy Alumni; Homero PeƱuelas, Assistant Principal of Curie Metro High School; and Jason Janczak, Social Studies Department Chair at Grayslake Central High School. Panelists were asked to reflect on the Lived Civics framework and how it affected their work.


Student voice and its relationship to identity and lived experiences was a key takeaway from our panelists. The panelists also reaffirmed that it is an educator’s duty to teach students how to listen with empathy, value everyone’s point of view, and be more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Another takeaway that not only spoke to me, but was shared with so many others, is that so many schools and educators are struggling with similar obstacles and that the pursuit of equity is an ongoing, yet worthwhile, battle. We need to recognize that biases and prejudices exist even in more inclusive and diverse schools, so continuously holding ourselves accountable is a must.

Breakout sessions after the morning panel discussion split the administrators, teachers, and partners into various groups where each explored Lived Civics at a deeper level and tasked the groups to identify strengths and opportunities of their respective schools or organizations. In synthesizing the evaluations from the convening, some teachers expressed that knowing their students is not the same thing as truly understanding them. If teachers are to build a more meaningful connection with their students, the intentionality should be coupled with time and resources to devote to individual students.

Administrators shared a similar sentiment with teachers in that practicing intentionality will help lead to more meaningful student-teacher relationships. Also, some administrators shared one idea of including students more in the school decision-making process by inviting students to interdepartmental meetings.


Partners expressed that they were exposed to civic engagement opportunities that had been previously shrouded to them. One made a point to say that we — educators and practitioners alike — are not “frenemies,” we are all on the same path together.

The overarching goal of the day, and arguably the Lived Civics framework, was to give those gathered the tools of knowing “what to do next.” Educators and practitioners understand the “how” and the “why” of Lived Civics, now the framework gives them tools for action. Sharing the tools and approaches acquired with colleagues is not only a step that many ascribed to taking, but also sharing this with decision-makers above them. Others recognized the need to couple Lived Civics practices with social-emotional learning in classrooms, both supporting each other. Lastly, but certainly not least, many expressed the desire to be the catalysts in sparking constructive conversations in their work environments around issues of power, privilege, race, and lived experiences.

I want to leave us with some questions that the groups from the convening posed as what comes next and how we should approach it. These questions will hopefully help guide us in how we can professionally and personally strive towards molding communities that are equitable, just, and responsive.
  • How do we use Lived Civics to get white students on board with truly grasping students of color’s lived experiences? How do we tackle “white fragility” with both young people and adults?
  • What does Lived Civics look like in different schools/communities around the state of Illinois?
  • What will Lived Civics look like in classes outside the social sciences? How will we create “buy-in” at an interdisciplinary level?
  • How can we increase school-community partnerships in environments that are perceived as “polarizing” or not open to change?
  • Where are there opportunities to bring young people from across the state (urban, suburban, and rural) together for these conversations?

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