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posted: 3/7/2014 1:00 AM

Democracy is not a spectator sport at Community High School District 94

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By Douglas Domeracki
Inside District 94

Not only during election season, but throughout the school year, students at Community High School District 94 in West Chicago are engaged in many activities through our Social Studies Division that prove democracy is not a spectator sport in our school.

You may have seen our students on WTTW's "Chicago Tonight" program on Jan. 20 as they interviewed the candidates for Illinois governor. On Feb. 25, our students assisted the Mikva Challenge with hosting a lieutenant governor debate at our school -- the only lieutenant governor debate held during this election. The event also included a local elected official meet-and-greet for the community.

On National Voter Registration Day in September, our students partnered with the Wheaton League of Women Voters and West Chicago's Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6791 to host a voter-registration drive and local elected official meet-and-greet. At the board of education meeting on Feb. 18, 128 students were recognized for participating in the VFW's Voice of Democracy Audio Essay contest with the theme "Why I'm Optimistic about Our Nation's Future."

Community High School also partners with the Constitutional Rights Foundation of Chicago and the Mikva Challenge. These not-for-profit groups are focused on helping youth understand their roles as citizens and engaging them in the democratic process. Our Community Leadership class conducts student voter registration drives, creates voter information guides with candidate bios, and organizes mock elections to engage students in current elections. As a result, students can be found organizing elected official debates and meet-and-greets, working on election campaigns, and serving as election judges in our community.

Authentic experiences are inherent in one of our flagship programs that is a required course for all seniors. The American Government Legislative Semester is an enactment of the legislative process and a true experience in democracy. A parliamentary procedure debate begins the class on Day 1. During the semester, students examine their own beliefs and values, declare a party affiliation, form interest groups to study issues, choose elected officials, write bills, hold committee hearings, and ultimately conduct two legislative general sessions to decide the fate of their bills. Sample bills from among the 45 generated this semester include: Withdrawal of Troops, Student Loan Forgiveness, Welfare Reform, Equal Work for Equal Pay, and Technology in School. The full legislative session simulation will take place Tuesday, April 15, in our auditorium.

Since its creation by social studies teachers in 1993, the program has grown and improved. We continue to be asked to present at local schools, and at state and national conferences to share our experiences and teach others how to create the program. We have been visited by numerous schools to see the program in action, and have hosted international visitors from Angola, Estonia and Indonesia.

Others have recognized us as well. In 2006, the McCormick Foundation named Community High School one of the first four Illinois Democracy Schools, recognizing that we are providing students with authentic experiences in the rights, responsibilities and tensions inherent in living in a constitutional democracy.

In 2010, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools (part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) named Community High School an exemplar school for preparing students for citizenship and featured us in its No Excuses publication. In November 2012, Community High School was featured as the cover story in the National Council for the Social Studies for our "comprehensive, high quality, robust political education." We are featured in the book "Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion" by Diane E. Hess, and there is a chapter about our Legislative Semester in a book soon to be released, "The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education" by Hess and Paula McAvoy.

We are extremely proud of the dedicated staff members who have made this experience possible for our students and have brought so much recognition to our school. And we are proud of our students for making the most of this opportunity to experience the democratic process in action, and beyond that, in becoming active participants in the decision-making process in their communities. For the students at Community High School, democracy truly is not a spectator sport.

• Doug Domeracki is superintendent of Community High School District 94. His column appears monthly during the school year in Neighbor.

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