Local governments can have important role in new Governor’s Civic Seal program

BY KATE COIL

A new civics program is encouraging students to get involved in the real-world applications of government, and local governments have a chance to help.
Earlier this year, Gov. Bill Lee announced the launch of the Governor’s Civics Seal and mini-grant program to provide support and recognize schools and districts that prioritize teaching our nation’s history and civic values.
The Tennessee Department of Education will be using the allocated funds in part to award mini-grants to schools and districts that provide programs, resources, and professional learning opportunities that emphasize civic learning. Schools and districts excelling at these initiatives will be able to earn the Governor’s Civics Seal in the 2020-21 school year.
Jennifer Johnson, director of communications for the Tennessee Department of Education, said the program is part of ongoing efforts to increase civics education across all age groups in the state.
“This is something the governor obviously felt very passionate ly about,” Johnson said. “It is one of the things he flagged in his State of the State address earlier this year. It is really a move that Tennessee has been going toward since 2017. Back that year, the state legislature made it a requirement that they add a civics class to high schools. It wasn’t mandatory for graduation at that point, but last year the legislature cleaned up that language to make it a graduation requirement. Students have to receive a grade of 70 or higher to receive that diploma. This program was born out of those efforts and the recognition that we needed to do something to create more civic-minded students in the state of Tennessee.”
Gov. Lee allocated $500,000 for the program, a portion of which will be broken down into a series of grants. Grants of $5,000 will be awarded to 10 schools, $10,000 will be split among 10 schools, and $15,000 will be split among 10 school districts.
“It is important to note that they do not get the civic seal when their proposal is accepted, but they do get the money to fund their program or idea,” Johnson said. “The civic seals will be awarded next year based on the six criteria set forth.”
All grade levels are eligible to participate in the program, though there are different requirements based on age groups. The state has set forth six criteria for the program:
The program must incorporate civics through multiple subject areas.
Students must have a clear understanding of the founding documents of the American Constitution.
There must be an element of professional development for teachers.
There should be opportunities to participate in real-world application.
There must be a project-based assessment (fourth grade and above)
Must be a civic all-star school, meaning 80 percent of students have taken and passed the civics test (high school only)

Those programs aimed at kindergarten through third grade only have to meet the first four criteria. Programs for students from fourth through high school have to meet the first five criteria and high school programs must meet all six criteria.
As all levels of education are required to participate in real-world opportunities tying into civics, Johnson said schools may be reaching out to local governments for this component of the program.
“This could be job shadowing local government officials or participating in a model UN team,” she said. “We are encouraging local governments to get involved. One of the ideas that has been thrown out is going to visit a school board or city council meeting. Anything local municipalities can do to get the wheels turning with their local schools if they get this grant would be greatly appreciated. We are doing a webinar that will give more clarity on what some of these projects can look like. We want schools to get creative with these applications.”
Johnson said municipalities are always encouraged to get involved with civics education in their local schools.
“Having strong partnerships between mayors, city officials, and the school directors are important. That is where things need to start,” she said. “We have had discussions that this is an issue in Tennessee and that students aren’t as civic-minded as we would like them to be. I think it would be great for those officials to start with one-on-one conversations about what their area specifically needs. We have such a wide swath of students. Students in one part of the state may have different needs than others. I encourage our municipal officials to be proactive and get involved in this.”
The goal of the program is to ensure the next generation is educated so they can participate in civic life.
“You cannot have educated voters unless there is a clear understanding how government works and how decisions get made,” Johnson said. “This isn’t about any partisan issues but about helping students become good citizens.”
The application window opened Friday, Oct. 25, and closes on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. The department began offering an online training beginning Oct. 24 to provide more information to districts and schools on the Governor’s Civics Seal and associated mini-grants.
For more information on the program, visit the Governor’s Civics Seal web page at https://www.tn.gov/education/instruction/governor-s-civics-seal.html.