Teaching Democracy: Network Has Baked Civics & Activism Into Its DNA
Can schools save our fractured nation? Backed by groundbreaking research, Democracy Prep is putting civics — and active political participation — at the heart of its educational mission
When Democracy Prep students stream into their classrooms each morning, their school motto follows them. It’s written on the blue and gold banners slung in their hallways, alongside packets of graded student work and on rows of university pennants. It peeks up from school-issued planners. And it’s occasionally found on pieces of the school uniform, a variegated ensemble that makes room for branded button-downs, sweatpants, ties, cardigans and vests.
Not every school can boast a mantra, but Democracy Prep chose one that leaves no ambiguity about its mission. Students (referred to as scholars) encounter all the hallmarks of the urban charter school: high expectations, a long school day, stringent disciplinary policies.
But as it has expanded from one Harlem middle school to more than 20 locations across five states, the 13-year-old network has always kept the exclamation point at the end of that third imperative clause. Unique among both charter and district schools, Democracy Prep’s institutional focus lies in preparing kids not just for the rigors of college, but also for the demands of citizenship. Through an emphasis on government and social change, as well as a heavy dose of extracurricular civic involvement, the schools seek to transform K-12 students into future voters, volunteers and activists.
“Democracy Prep gives you its coursework so it can prepare you, and you can have the ambition to change the world,” said Herman Amevor, a senior at Democracy Prep Charter High School in Harlem. “We do have an obligation as scholars to be involved in our community, to make our voices heard and make a change.”
Measured by traditional metrics of school quality, the results have been striking. Extensive research released between 2012 and 2015 showed that students at Democracy Prep’s New York schools achieved significant gains in math and literacy comparable to those of students at other high-performing charters. But the schools’ most touted impact has been felt on an entirely non-academic outcome: political participation.
Last spring, the research group Mathematica released a study finding that attending Democracy Prep made students significantly more likely to vote.
At a time when polling shows that most adults can’t name the three branches of government, the study provided hopeful evidence that schools have a role to play in shaping better citizens. Particularly impressive is the fact that Democracy Prep’s exclusively young (its oldest graduates are still in their early 20s) and predominantly minority and low-income student demographic is generally the least likely to participate in elections.
David Campbell, chair of the political science department at Notre Dame, called the Mathematica study “top-notch.”
“It’s big,” he said. “And as these interventions go, on a scale of what we’ve seen other things do — not only in education, but just in general — trying to move the needle on voter turnout is actually a pretty hard thing to do. That’s a big effect.”
The Democracy Prep study offered a ray of hope in an era rife with disheartening news about the fragility of democracy. Americans’ demonstrated ignorance of their political leaders and founding documents is already well-known. Their trust, both in their institutions and in one another, is in free fall. Particularly since President Donald Trump’s election, partisan polarization has grown from a peculiar infirmity of Washington to a cantankerous lifestyle practiced across most of the country. Already low, participation in America’s huge network of voluntary organizations, from Rotary Clubs to the Boy Scouts, has entered a stage of potentially terminal decline.
While policymakers turn to civics education as a cure for democracy’s ills, Democracy Prep offers a singular model of a school that places civics knowledge and public activism at the core of its educational mission.
“Democracy Prep is not ‘Generic Prep.’ It’s specifically Democracy Prep for a reason,” said Seth Andrew, the network’s founder. “The reason we have public schools is to educate citizens for democracy. I think every school should have a civic purpose; ours is just more explicit about it than most.”
Though it hasn’t won the same notoriety as other “no excuses” schools, Democracy Prep has enjoyed a decade of impressive results and widespread praise within the education reform community. With the aid of $21.8 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Education, it launched a nationwide expansion that increased its enrollment fifty-fold since its opening in 2006. It now educates 6,500 students in New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, Texas, and Nevada.
But the halcyon era may be dimming.
Democracy Prep experienced its first major failure in Washington, D.C., where it posted four years of dismal performance before pulling up stakes ahead of an imminent school closure. Newly opened schools in San Antonio and Las Vegas have had to fend off fierce pushback from teachers unions and angry families. And this year, financial shortfalls led to network-wide austerity measures to restore fiscal balance.
The setbacks raise tough questions about whether the network can replicate its heralded approach to civics instruction outside of New York.