June 20, 2017

Let’s Stop the Apathy in Kentucky and Beyond: The connection between student and civic engagement

By Zachariah Sippy

We know democracy is in jeopardy when millions of people dismiss the political process as rigged and not worth their attention, choosing to stay home rather than vote.


For example, in the 2015 Kentucky gubernatorial election, when the voter turnout was a dismal 30.6 percent. More than two-thirds of Kentuckians who could have voted stayed at home.


Where did we go wrong?


The answer starts in the classroom, where civics education often fails to inspire and engage students. Far too many schools preach, rather than practice, democratic ideals.


From elementary school on, we are told both implicitly and explicitly that our opinions either shouldn’t or can’t be voiced. In a system that all too often doesn’t solicit our input on anything beyond planning social events and fundraisers, too many of us become either oblivious or callous about the very concept of civic engagement.


The resulting voter apathy follows a natural logic: If my voice doesn’t matter in school, then how could my ballot? If in a classroom of 30 students I don’t feel valued, then why in a city, state, or nation of millions would I share my opinion?


Young people like us do not suddenly find our voices when we turn 18. Our voices need to be developed, nurtured and cultivated by those who take the time to listen to our perspectives and provide feedback and guidance. As with any other core subject we study, acts of democracy and civic collaboration must be practiced and honed in our schools.


“Where did we go wrong?”


Studies consistently show that students succeed when we are invested in the learning process, and this is achieved by supporting students to serve as co-creators and partners in it.


PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, compared 15 year-olds in 65 cities from across the world and found that the most successful students are those who feel ownership of their education.


For students, having a voice fosters a sense of ownership over our own learning. For schools, the student perspective is integral to a more complete picture of the system. In these ways, students can bring added value to both education policy and practice.


Yet our schools, intentionally or not, often advance a sense of learned-helplessness. Too many of us students feel we have no power to shape our environment, resulting in a vicious cycle where students don’t share our perspectives and educators don’t seek them out.


Over the last year, the Student Voice Team has attempted to confront the problem head-on. Our group of student facilitators has led conversations about meaningful student voice with over 2,000 of our peers across the state.


Our Students as Partners Listening Tour has brought us from inner-city Louisville to Appalachian coal country to listen to student stories of triumph and frustration, promote student engagement, and foster an intergenerational, collaborative mindset to improve our schools.


We have advocated for schools across the state to include students in all aspects of the decision-making process. This approach includes everything from teaching the basics of school decision making to having students participate in it by serving in advisory capacities on school boards and School-Based-Decision-Making councils to exploring deeper youth and adult collaboration with existing student councils to creating new ways to provide constructive feedback about the learning environment to teachers and administrators.


What we have observed up-close is both a knowledge and an empathy gap: Many students don’t know where to go, whom to address, and what the processes are for making change in their schools. Additionally, even if students do know how to advocate for themselves and others, they doubt that they will be heard by adults and that change will occur.


Voter apathy in adulthood makes more sense when you consider this very mindset.


It makes sense when you consider that even in the typical social studies class, the very place where we are supposed to learn what we need to know about how government works in order to be engaged, future citizens, we learn little to nothing about how our public schools are governed. Our conversations with young people across the state reveal that even in high school government, history, and debate classes, most students remain in the dark in terms of their most local governance. As one student told us, “In school, we talk about everything, except school itself.”


We need to learn civics from the ground up. So many of us students, who spend 35 hours a week in the classroom, who have such rich perspectives and feedback to share about our own education, do not know how our own schools function. The governance of schools is the place to start practicing civic participation.


A divorced approach that focuses on Washington and the state capitols has failed us. Yes, it is important to learn the concept of judicial review, know your state and federal representatives, and internalize the notion of checks and balances. However, isn’t it just as pressing for our students to understand how decisions are made in our schools?


Teaching school governance as part of a regular civics curriculum can bridge a knowledge gap.  Supporting students to practice elements of what it means to participate in school decision-making as partners with teachers, administrators, and other adults can begin to the bridge the empathy gap, building trust and a common cause with all those who want students to succeed.


Our public schools can be a bastion of democracy and serve as a breeding ground of civic and political excitement and possibility.  After all, a good education is about more than college and career. It’s about community too.

The Kentucky Student Voice Team is a statewide organization of young people who are co-creating more just, democratic Kentucky schools & communities as research, policy & advocacy partners.


It was founded in 2012 at the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, an independent, nonpartisan, citizen-led organization working to improve education in Kentucky—early childhood through postsecondary. Since 2021, KSVT has been an independent organization.

This op-ed originally ran in the Hechinger Report.

Zachariah Sippy

Zachariah Sippy

Zachariah is a Yoda Corps Advisor of KSVT and former member. He was previously the Director of Grassroots Engagement. Zachariah graduated from Henry Clay High School in 2018 and is a student at Princeton University.