A North Carolina Cooperative Extension 4-H agent recently won the N.C. Center for Voter Education’s Outstanding Citizen Award for 2011 for her role in creating an innovative citizenship program for Cabarrus County 10th graders.
Students, teachers and elected officials have praised Heather Jones’ Cabarrus 4-H Citizenship Focus program for its role in giving students a hands-on way to learn more about the principles they study in their semester-long civics classes. Nearly 90 percent of students who have taken part say it has instilled in them a better understanding of their duties as citizens.
The program has grown rapidly since its launch in 2009 with two high schools. Now, Citizenship Focus is held four times a semester, reaching hundreds of students with seven of the county’s eight high schools.
During the day-long program, students take part in three activities: They get to ask questions of a panel of elected officials, including county commissioners, school board members, mayors, the sheriff and town and city council members. They break into small groups and interview government employees. And they take a crack at balancing a $100 million budget.
The program is most often held at the Cabarrus County Governmental Center, but it’s also taken place at a high school and at Concord’s operations center.
Jones created the program in 2009, after meeting two local teachers at a statewide N.C. Civics Education Consortium training program. She handles the logistics, and Cabarrus County 4-H has paid for buses, bus drivers and substitute teachers.
But Jones says the program wouldn’t be possible were it not for the support and commitment of civics teachers, high school administrators, government employees and elected officials.
Northwest Cabarrus High School teacher Daniel Helms has been involved with the program from the start. In a video put together to honor Jones and the program, Helms says that the goal is to help students understand how they can become involved in their communities.
“Whether or not they go into politics is a moot point. It’s more about ‘Will they be active? Will they get involved and vote and be a citizen in the community?’” he says.
Jones, who visits each civics class to help students understand what will happen on the day of the program, says the most rewarding part of the program for her has been seeing the students’ knowledge grow by leaps and bounds.
“It really brings real-life meaning to their civics standard course of study objectives,” she says. “They are learning these things in their textbooks, but this way they get to see it and they get to interact with local government.
“It gets them in the door, more comfortable speaking with elected officials. They go home and talk about what they’ve learned. And they realize they have a role as a citizen in the community.”