School Climate & Safety Opinion

I’m a Superintendent. My Students’ Activism Is Key to Their Academic Success

By Michael Matsuda — March 03, 2020 5 min read
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Democracy isn’t something we’re born with. It’s not in the air that we breathe or the water that we drink. There is no magic shield that protects American democracy or its citizens’ inalienable rights. The truth is: American democracy is an experiment that was codified almost 250 years ago on paper. And now, on the eve of a presidential election, it’s in a fight for its life.

Today’s national discourse on nearly every important issue is mired in confusion and endless information (and misinformation), where ignorance, scapegoating, and name-calling are normalized. There are a growing number of historians who believe that America is on a similar path to Germany’s Weimar Republic and its ultimate march toward fascism. And we all know where that led.

See Also: Student Empowerment in Action

If our faith in democracy is going to be restored, our young people represent the best hope for getting us there. It is on us as educators to ensure that our students are civically engaged and understand how our government works. They should know what civil rights are, and why they are so critical for the future health of the nation. We must remind our young people that the promise of this country was forged by people who had the audacity to believe in an aspirational vision and encourage them to have one, too.

For me, it’s personal. On Dec. 7, 1941—the day Japan bombed Pearl Harbor—my mother was a freshman at Anaheim High School in California’s Orange County. A few months later, in an overt act of racial hostility, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the internment of more than 110,000 individuals—most of whom were American citizens of Japanese descent. My mother, her five sisters, and her recently widowed father were among those imprisoned.

And, then, I grew up in Orange County in the 1970s during the Vietnam War, when the enemy was, once again, people of Asian descent. I have painful memories of being tormented by other kids who yelled the racial slurs “chink” and “gook” at me. Forty years later, I’m a superintendent in Anaheim. Only in America.

But as powerful as my own story is, for too many of our Generation Zers—the students now in our K-12 schools—the achievement of “Liberty and Justice for All,” rings hollow. Instead of cultivating a generation of critical thinkers who are informed, engaged, and compassionate citizens, we have grown a generation of test-takers and passive learners who don’t trust each other, have no passion for education, and are disaffected.

Fortunately, when it comes to rebuilding public education’s civic mission, California has been proactive. Funded by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the California Democracy School Project works to “institutionalize civic learning in high schools students to prepare all students for college, career, and citizenship in the 21st century.” Since 2016, 10 schools in our Anaheim Union High School District have been awarded the project’s Democracy School designation—more than any other district in the state. And the California state schools’ chief and the chief justice of the state supreme court recognized two of our schools for outstanding civic learning—the highest award of its kind in the state.

The schools in our district are diverse: 30,000 students speak 49 different languages. Unfortunately, almost 20 percent of our young people are homeless. Many are sleeping on floors, in motels, or on the streets. They are exposed to all kinds of trauma. They are food-deprived, isolated, depressed, and, like many of their peers, anxious about their future and the uncertain economy.


But our student body is also highly engaged and activated when it comes to civic learning and participation. Today, they speak up on the issues that matter to them, including teen suicide, depression, human trafficking, housing, bias, access to clean air and water, immigration, and global warming, among others. They write to their elected officials and appear at school board and city council meetings.

They also participate in community service throughout the school year, and every year on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, we hold a Servathon. This event attracts more than 4,000 students from across our district, who perform more than 100 different service projects in their communities. They plant trees, serve food to the homeless, work in school gardens, teach seniors to use social media, write troops overseas, and make toys for sheltered animals.

Our district is demonstrating that civic engagement and academic metrics are not mutually exclusive. In four years, our high school dropout rates have decreased by 25 percentage points to the current rate of 5.1 percent. And our suspension rates have been reduced by 47 percentage points—the greatest reduction in Orange County.

How did we take this initiative from a high-minded concept to one that was actionable, with demonstrated results?

Our civic-engagement movement really kicked into high gear when a small group of teachers decided to give students a voice on important issues and a public platform for addressing them. These teachers implemented a TED Talk-like event in their English classes, which led to classroom speeches, video talks, social-media campaigns, and often culminated in student advocacy. Those talks became so popular with parents and the community that we created a one-day professional development opportunity to help more teachers bring the idea into their history, social studies, science, math, and other classrooms. (To date, we have trained more than 200 of our 1,200 teachers.)

Our civic-engagement work with our young people reaches across the curriculum, reinforcing their identity, connecting their passions with classroom content, and making learning more relevant and meaningful to them.

We are dedicated to making this investment in our students to help develop an educated, robust, vital citizenry for our state, our nation, and beyond. And we are excited and encouraged by the results and what they mean for the future of our democracy.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2020 edition of Education Week as How I Empower the Students in My District


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