By Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun

DENVER | Even at 12 years old, Sriram Yalavarthy sees the unbreakable thread between history and the current moment, something he’s long loved learning about in social studies classes going back to the founding of the United States.

“Learning that the past actually happened” is what Sriram said fascinates him the most. “It’s not just a story we tell every single day, and it affects us today still.”

The seventh grader from Drake Middle School in Arvada was crowned the winner of the first of its kind state civics bee May 19 at St. Cajetan Catholic Church in Denver, where he competed against 14 other Colorado middle schoolers. Similar to a spelling bee, the Colorado National Civics Bee put students in front of an audience to quiz them on all kinds of facts related to how government is structured and the rules that dictate how it works.

Using electronic tablets they got to keep, the students who battled against one another tackled two rounds of questions that pressed them on some of the finer details of civics: What is the name of the document that allows a visitor to the U.S. to stay for a specific period of time? (A visa.) Which amendments all deal with some aspect of the presidency? (Twelve, 22 and 25.) With the Monroe Doctrine, the United States did what? (Warned European nations not to interfere with affairs in the Western Hemisphere.)

The students stand out from many of their peers and even adults across the country, who largely struggle to understand government systems and remember critical components of democracy in an era when deepening political divisions have sparked battles over history curriculum and how it is taught.

The deficits in students’ grasp of civics became more apparent when the results of last spring’s National Assessment of Educational Progress — which includes state and national tests that gauge student achievement in subjects including reading, math and civics — revealed fewer students reaching proficiency in civics. Civics scores decreased an average of 2 points, with nearly 80% of eighth graders ranking below proficiency on last year’s exams, the results of which were released this year. Meanwhile, students are also broadly failing in history, with 40% of eighth graders performing at the lowest level in U.S. history on 2022 exams, compared with 34% in 2018, Chalkbeat reported.

“The time for action is now,” said Hilary Crow, vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, which launched the National Civics Bee last year with pilot programs in five states. “We are at a crisis point, and this is the perfect time and opportunity to engage leaders, business leaders, legislators, educators and communities all across the country to elevate civics as a priority. The strength of our democracy, of free enterprise and the future of our country depends on us.”

The chamber foundation has partnered with the Daniels Fund, a Denver-based charitable foundation, to roll out civics bees across the country with the goal of creating competitions in all 50 states that culminate in a national competition, which Crow said will debut next year in Washington, D.C. This year’s round of bees started in more than 50 communities in nine states, with competitions at the local level hosted by chambers of commerce, each sending the top three finalists to a state bee hosted by each state’s chamber.

Colorado students in the Denver metro area, Arvada, Buena Vista, Craig and Pueblo put their civics knowledge to the test last month in local contests. Three winners from each community advanced to the May 21 bee, hosted by the Colorado Chamber of Commerce, which wants to strengthen students’ understanding of how government functions and help them see that they will set the foundation and tone for the next decades of democracy.

“If they believe that our democracy is in trouble, and if they don’t understand how government works, then they can’t change the process, they can’t influence the process,” said Loren Furman, president and CEO of the Colorado Chamber of Commerce.

Bee organizers at the state and national level say the task of polishing students’ grasp of civics falls on far more than educators.

“Our schools have so many responsibilities right now that this is a way to come alongside our schools and say, ‘In our communities we have a responsibility too,’” Daniels Fund CEO Hanna Skandera said. “And we can join with our education, our schools, having families and communities and chambers help be a part of the solution.”

Even as many kids fall behind in civics, they remain eager to learn

The first-ever decline in civics proficiency on last year’s NAEP exams led communities and educators alike to worry and intervene.

And while Barbara Taylor, who teaches Advanced Placement U.S. History, honors government and honors geography at Pomona High School in Arvada, is disheartened by student performance in civics, but she also sees students actively pursuing an understanding of government systems every day in her classes.

Low NAEP scores aren’t “a very accurate reflection of the interest that real kids have in their country,” said Taylor, who has been teaching for 23 years and also serves as treasurer for Colorado Council for the Social Studies.

“They really want to understand what’s happening to them, what we see in the community,” she added.

Rather than educating students about civics and history just through textbooks, Taylor builds students’ knowledge by connecting their learning to the real world. That includes putting students through a legal simulation with help from University of Colorado law students, who challenge them to look at evidence and craft arguments based on school-related issues, including the question of which bathrooms should be available to kids who identify as transgender. That also includes pushing students to trace a certain topic throughout its arc of history, whether fashion, food, hairstyles or issues involving the LGBTQ+ community.  

She has also seen a resurgence in interest among high schoolers studying civics that she attributes to the deep-seated division roiling communities and inflaming politics at every level.

“The divide we have in this country is in part because people don’t know how to have a civil conversation, and they’re easily intimidated by people who seem to have information and seem to know things,” Taylor said. “And because we don’t know how to talk, we stop talking. And so the consequences are dire.”

All the clatter of outside political fury was absent during the civics bee, when students were asked how history has shaped democracy, before seven finalists presented ideas to solve community issues, drawing from essays they had written. Judges peppered them with questions about their proposed solutions, which addressed the lack of affordable housing in Colorado, the rising cost of eggs and the ways educators could discreetly help students affected by mental health issues, among other topics.

Sriram, champion of the statewide bee, who took home a $1,000 prize, spoke of the need for civility among politicians and across the country during his presentation. His grandparents used to see the United States as a place where everyone would greet strangers and be nice to each other, he said after the competition. Now, that sense of kindness is largely fading.

“It’s still there but not as much,” Sriram said.

Runner-up Joseph Drexler, a seventh grader at Darren Patterson Christian Academy in Buena Vista, raised concerns about Chaffee County housing becoming out of reach for local residents, noting that 64% of people in the county spend more than half of their income on housing.

“We sometimes look for housing, and it’s crazy how expensive all the houses are, and I thought, whoa, these should be less,” Joseph, 13, said after the bee.

He and Sriram were jittery with nervous excitement that morning after spending hours looking over a study packet and rehearsing their speeches.

Joseph, who won $500, said he will use the knowledge he gained from the bee to help him one day vote, prepare for a possible career in government and educate others about civics.

“You just have to know things about the government before you can make really good choices about the government,” he said.

That knowledge is key when looking both backward and forward, Sriram added.

It’s critical to study civics, he said, “so you know how our country was founded and not make the same mistakes they made in the past and make better decisions in the future.”

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