How to Get Students Involved with Civic Engagement

With the presidential election approaching, many schools are considering how to meaningfully discuss civic engagement and create programming for students. While civics may have only been taught in upper school government classes in the past, it can and should be taught at all grade levels. And teaching civics should take place not only in the classroom, but through experiential learning. 

I know from my own experience working in local and state government, including the California Governor’s Office, that the best way to truly learn and understand civics is to take part in the process itself.

An Example of Experiential Civic Engagement

This March, I tasked my eighth-grade leadership students at Pacific Ridge School (CA) with hosting a meeting with their elected officials to advocate their support of a bill that could have an impact on our school community. The bill, called the Safeguarding Charities Act, was proposed in the U.S. Senate to protect the well-being of 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, like independent schools. 

We arranged for a team of our middle school student leaders to meet with the field representative (a role that helps connect a politician with their constituents) for U.S. Senator Alex Padilla at our school to talk about the bill and why they wanted the senator to support it. 

During the hour-long meeting, they shared stories about how the school has benefited them as students and why they believe this bill is critical to the school’s ability to maintain the independence necessary to carry out its mission and values. Afterward, they took him on a tour of the school to showcase the programs, activities, and culture they described in the meeting. Ultimately, the senator said he would take their argument into consideration as their office formulates an official stance on the bill.

Through this experience, the students refined their argumentation, analysis, and overall communication skills. They learned how to conduct a professional, formal meeting in an official capacity, and they had the chance to promote the strong schoolwork they perform as middle school students. This meeting will be a great transition to more advanced advocacy work as high school students, including lobbying meetings in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

Getting Started

Giving students real-world experience in how their government works and building stronger ties with local, statewide, and federal leaders benefits students and the school. But conducting meetings with government officials and designing other experiences like these does require preparation and following a few key steps. 

Determine the purpose of the meeting.

If your school leaders or students have never met with a legislator before, you may want to host a purely introductory and informational meeting in which students introduce themselves, explain what an independent school is, and highlight some of the unique elements of your school community. 

If there’s a specific issue or piece of legislation students want to advocate for or against, set up a meeting for that explicit purpose. It could be anything of interest to the students or independent schools generally—from climate change to school safety to private school autonomy. This type of meeting offers students a great opportunity to practice and display their public speaking skills in a real-world advocacy situation. It’s great skill building, and the possibilities are vast depending on student interests, what issues may be percolating, and whether you will be meeting with federal, state, or local officials. 

Contact your local field office.

All government officials have field offices (an office that serves as a local government agency and provides services and facilitates interactions with the public) throughout the state, so you don’t have to be near the capitol to get face time. You can schedule the meeting––by phone or email––to take place at a field office or at your school. 

When you make contact, make it clear that this meeting is for local students in the legislator’s district, which will often give you scheduling priority as elected officials and staff enjoy meeting with students in particular. It’s also best to be able to provide some timing options and to let them know the topic of your meeting, so the office can identify the best staffer to meet with your group. 

Help the students prepare their presentation.

If your students are having a meeting focused on a specific piece of legislation, they will likely need some guidance. Take time to walk the students through the bill’s language, important points, and overall effects on your institution. Regional and national groups like NAIS can be useful in providing legislative context why the bill is important for your community. Remind the students that their point of reference is as a student and as a member of the local community. Talk through with them why they are an interested party and how this bill may affect them. 

It’s important to remember that these meetings are typically only 15-30 minutes, so students need to practice telling their story by giving two to three important talking points in three to five minutes. Have students deliver their pitch and then provide feedback. 

The final person to speak in the meeting should give the ask—“Can we count on your support on this legislation?” Remind the students that regardless of the answer, any feedback from the official is helpful. If they do not support, why not? Are there any reservations? This is all useful information for the students to hear. 

Lastly, after the meeting is over, have your students write an email or note thanking the officials for their time. 

Other Ways to Get Students Involved

In addition to the successful meeting middle school students had with federal officials about the 501(c)3 bill in the spring, a team of Pacific Ridge School upper school student representatives traveled to Sacramento last year to lobby our state legislators for increased community college funding in the upcoming state budget. And in March, another group of upper school student leaders traveled to Sacramento to lobby for the passage of a bill promoting e-bike safety, a salient issue for our local youth. The opportunities to host meetings with elected officials are endless, but there are other ways to meaningfully involve the student body in civics.

You can invite local elected officials to speak at your school. While polarized national politics often makes having political discussions in school difficult, local politicians like the city council, mayor, and county supervisors can speak to nonpartisan, local issues more tangibly and closer to home for students. Inviting such officials to speak at a school assembly is a great way to show the students that not all politics are divisive and that there are local leaders of all types working to improve the community. 

Some states, like California, allow for early voter registration for 16- and 17-year-olds. Asking the student council or other groups to host a nonpartisan voter registration drive on campus or a voter education seminar to educate students about ballot issues is a great way to engage students and help them understand how to vote on better-known and down-ballot issues.

There are many ways to promote civics in school through experiential learning, and now is the perfect opportunity to get started in a way that works for your community. The upcoming election this fall will approach quickly, so the more we can frontload civics content and meaningful experiences with students now, the better prepared they will be come November. 

Spencer Burrows

Spencer Burrows is the equity and civic engagement coordinator at Pacific Ridge School in Carlsbad, California.