08/04/2014 01:43 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2014

Authentic Civics Learning at BxDCA High School

The American Federation of Teachers and Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University recently issued calls for accountability in education that are not simply based on high-stakes standardized assessments. They are particularly interested in assessments that recognize "meaningful student learning" and support educational approaches that "prepare all students for life, citizenship, college and careers."

Civic and citizenship are at the core of the Common Core aligned social studies standards developed by the National Council for the Social Studies. Dimension 4 of their C3 framework calls on schools to "provide tangible opportunities" for student to take "informed action." Social studies teachers love to have students consider, weigh evidence, and debate, but I think few schools actually take the final step and create "tangible opportunities" for political action.

This focus on citizenship is also imbedded in the New York State k-12 social studies frameworks which states that the "primary purpose of Social Studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world." This commitment explicitly includes "civic participation and engagement" and in grades 9-12 students are expected to "fulfill social and political responsibilities associated with citizenship in a democratic society and interdependent global community by developing awareness and/or engaging in the political process." The frameworks make clear that voting is not sufficient to ensure democracy. Citizens are expected to "participate in civic life through volunteerism and advocacy, including efforts such as contacting elected officials, signing/organizing petitions, protesting, canvassing, and participating in/organizing boycotts."

In this post I highlight authentic civics learning and assessment at BxDCA High School in Bronx, New York. Bronx Design and Construction Academy High School or BxDCA is one of hundreds of New York City's small themed high schools. It shares the old Alfred E. Smith High School building with two other schools. Regular followers of this blog have been reading comments by BxDCA United States history students. I am usually sure who they are and it is amazing the way they engage in heated debates on complex social, political, and educational issues with readers who do not know they are high school students from the South Bronx, one the economically most depressed communities in the United States.

The mission of Bronx Design and Construction Academy is to prepare students for both college and the building trades by providing them with a background in the use of green technology and environmentally sustainable construction and architectural design. It partners with an ecology group, Solar One, that supports its environmentally friendly "CleanTech" curriculum. The school also earned a $100,000 Zayed Future Energy prize, a distinguished international award, to build a sustainable energy research center.

BxDCA is a small school with a little more than 400 students in grade 9 through grade 11. It opened in 2011 and the first class will not graduate until 2015. The school population is overwhelmingly male, about 85%. The students are 70% Hispanic, 28% Black, and 2% other. About one in five students is categorized as an English language learner and about a quarter of the students have learning disabilities. I do not know if the school will achieve its mission, but these kids, who are growing up in what the 2010 Census identified as the poorest Congressional District in the United States, definitely deserve a break.

Sometimes the students at BxDCA email me and I have been following recent events that can only be described as authentic civics learning, the kind of learning missing from the Common Core Standards, the kind of learning that high-stakes Pearson assessments can never measure.

On Friday, May 30, 2014, between sixty and eighty BxDCA students staged a non-violent protest at the school. They refused to wear the school uniform and when blocked entry by security guards, they insisted on their legal right to enter the building and learn. The principal intervened and invited the students into the building to meet about their grievances.

The students had just completed a two-week unit on the African American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and as a final project used social networks including a Facebook "chat" to secretly plan their own protest rally. They targeted the school's uniform policy because when they applied to the school and on the school website and Department of Education sites there is no mention of a school uniform or dress code.

The following week, after informing school officials, the students launched another anti-uniform protest. The principal and staff again met with students and encouraged them to submit their proposals.

The student organizing committee, the "Advocates of the Student Body," unanimously proposed a "minimum of two days per week of dress down." They believe a change in policy will encourage students to be "more independent and responsible," which will help to improve academic performance and move them toward adulthood. In their meetings, staff argued that the uniform policy promoted school safety. The Advocates responded that the school already has "such an exceptional safety system that it almost feels like a penitentiary" with metal detectors, hallway cameras, and a long list or restricted substances and equipment.

According to one student, Brandon, "Students have to wear a black, two button polo shirt with khaki pants or cargos or Bronx Design t-shirts with the school logo on it to be allowed to attend all classes," which is a violation of Department of Education policy. He participated because students in the junior class are fed up with wearing uniform daily to attend school." The uniform policy just adds to the frustration they feel attending a school in a "dangerous" neighborhood and having to "walk through metal detectors" just to get into the school building. He also noted that when he applied to the school, "Bronx Design didn't have a uniform policy stated in that additional information section on page 19 which made students assume there was no uniform policy."

Another student, Jordan, explained that some of the students kept their uniform shirts in their book bags just in case because they did not want to miss school. Joande liked the idea of the protest but felt the students needed to be better prepared. Norvis was proud of his classmates because they got together as a community of students and fought against something they did not want. "It took bravery and strength to do it." He hopes this campaign makes it possible for students to make other positive changes in the school.

Omari did not originally support the strike but was convinced by the other students. He does not really care about the uniforms, but "support it for its effect on the juniors as far as it being a life lesson. It is a beautiful thing to see my peers demand what they want instead of being passive and settling for what the circumstances are. This movement will transcribe into more activism in the lives of those who are involved including post high school. I may even involve myself in this just for that reason. This is an opportunity to practice activism in reality instead of practicing the all to familiar complaining in secrecy about what we want to be done."

Angel, who came up with the idea of organizing the protest using Facebook, described Friday, May 30, 2014 as a "game changing day." Rafael called the uniform protest a "warning shot." Dayvon hopes to set an example of activism for younger students. I agree with all of them.

Bravo students, teachers, and administrators at BxDCA high school for real learning, not the phony stuff sold by Common Core and the high-stakes testing companies. Student activism and writing offer teachers the ability to genuinely assess what they really learned.

I do not know what will happen when school resumes in September, but Alex called the student actions in June "a step to something much bigger."