Citizens are Created in Public Schools

Guest post by Dr. Lee Southern who served as the Executive Director of the BC School Trustees Association from 1995 to 2008.

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the annual Academy of the British Columbia School Trustees Association (BCSTA). The Academy is a gathering of the most important leaders in public education; locally elected school trustees who are the co-governors of public education, and district superintendents who are the senior education leaders. This event features presentations from leading-edge Canadian and international education practitioners and academics about successful innovations in teaching and new perspectives on how to improve student success.

Back home watching the nightly global news it struck me that there is an exigent challenge and opportunity racing towards trustees that they have the power to address: welcoming thousands of Syrian students, their parents and relatives into Canadian life by educating them about our civic culture and how they can successfully become fully participating citizens to the benefit of us all.

That citizens are created in public schools is a truth to which we seldom pay attention. Most of us have had the good fortune to live and grow up in an open and democratic society and take for granted its essential elements including; the rule of law, security of the person, representative institutions, democratic procedures, freedom of the press and protection of basic rights and freedoms. All these democratic elements of our free society depend on citizens that understand and value them.

Education lies at the core of such a civic culture and at the heart of education lies public education. Public education has been the means by which people of diverse languages, cultures, and social and economic circumstance have been integrated into Canadian society with some reasonable aspirations to equality of opportunity.

Simply stated, our democracy depends on each person’s ability to give her informed consent to be ruled. For most Canadians our public schools are the principal institution where we learn how to think independently empowering us to choose who is to represent us in government.

It is no exaggeration to say that most Syrians have not had the opportunity to learn about, much less to experience the freedom provided by our civic culture. That is where boards of education and their senior education leaders come in. They have the power to consult with their communities about what is important about citizenship, and then to design programs to serve both our new Syrian students and their classmates to ensure that our public schools do an even better job of creating citizens.

Some fifty years ago US President Kennedy famously called for citizens to ask not what government could do for them but rather what they could do for their country. That call is even more important in the world today but we cannot answer it positively unless all of us, native-born and newcomers alike, consciously understand and value the principles of our democratic civic culture. And that all can begin today with boards of education engaging their communities to focus on citizenship education in our public schools.

Boards of Education and their superintendents can lead the way for a few thousand Syrian students and their families to join with millions of Canadian students and their teachers in classrooms, gymnasiums, school theatres and auditoriums, science and computer labs, cafeterias and auto shops, playgrounds, playing fields, band rooms, school buses, field trips, school libraries and even principals’ offices where we all learn to become citizens: our public schools.

No schools in the world have done a better job at creating democratic citizens for so long in history than ours. It is up to us to show the world how well it can be done.

Lee Southern

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