Principal Gina Davenport of Arundel High School in Gambrills always perceived the diverse culture on her campus to be a positive one, in which people of all backgrounds and walks of life got along. But in the winter of 2017, a racially charged incident at the school changed all of that.
“When this incident occurred,” she recalls, “it made me realize that our students really didn’t have the skills or depth of understanding to handle racial incidents that were happening not just in our school but in our nation.”
Arundel High held a community forum where parents could voice their concerns, and one problem Davenport heard from many of them was that there was nothing in the curriculum to give students the skills they need to overcome their differences. Davenport assembled a group of educators from within her school who all had different backgrounds and encouraged them to develop a course that would equip students for this purpose.
The course, which would come to be known as Global Community Citizenship (GCC), was approved by the Anne Arundel County Public Schools Board of Education later that spring, and Arundel started teaching the class later that fall. Within two years, GCC has expanded to be a countywide requirement for all freshmen entering any one of the 12 AACPS high schools.
Superintendent Dr. George Arlotto sent a letter to parents after the board voted to expand the course to all high school freshmen, noting that this addition to the curriculum demonstrates the efforts of AACPS in fighting the hostility and bigotry that have increased in recent years. “We have seen an alarming number of incidents in our communities and our schools in the last few years in which hate-filled messages were written, displayed or distributed,” he wrote. “That is why, though some may be opposed, the time is right to move forward with the expansion of this course.”
GCC uses discussion-based classes in which students learn about their community by exploring topics, events and questions. Some days students might read a newspaper article or watch a TED Talk, following it up with conversations on how the material reflects values and diversity.
“As [students] became more comfortable, [the class] became that area where they could talk about difficult topics and really learn how to have a respectful conversation and express their opinion and listen for understanding rather than listening to give a response,” Davenport says.
Johanna Ricker, who teaches the class at Arundel, sees students develop into community-minded individuals thanks to the class. “We focus on their core values in the beginning and how they impact their decision-making,” she says, “then move to their role in their communities. We also discuss what it means to be a good citizen and how to be changemakers.”
Developing the course required no additional cost to AACPS, as it is taught by teachers who are already on staff, and all material is developed by the teachers without use of extra textbooks or expensive media. And despite what some critics have said about the course, Davenport emphasizes that it’s not about forcing any one set of values on any students.
Instead, it’s about finding ways to frame a conversation so that students can express and explain their values—something the students are responding to and adopting. “It’s not uncommon to hear ninth-graders say, ‘While I respect your opinion about the culture in the city versus the county, I really feel that . . .’ ” Davenport explains. “We’re giving kids the language to agree . . . or disagree politely and have a conversation.”
As students learn how to express themselves and learn to see the world through the eyes of others, they become more open to other perspectives and less hostile toward those who are different from them.
When Davenport appeared on Larry King Live in December 2017, sociologist Dr. Michael Kimmel of Stony Brook University observed, “If hate can be learned, it can be unlearned, and it can be unlearned through a process of reengagement with the other, those people you think you hate.”
What has resulted in the two years since the course was instated at Arundel High is a dramatic change in culture, sometimes in unexpected ways. Discipline data reflects that students are causing less disruption, presumably because they now have the problem-solving skills they need and don’t resort to inappropriate language or action.
“We’re really seeing that kids are developing social and emotional skills that help them think before they react,” Davenport says. “They also see there are a lot of different perspectives to a situation, so they’re not being as judgmental. They’re starting to really understand other people’s perspectives.”
This also leads to improved academic achievement because, as Davenport explains, students who feel included and accepted are more likely to take risks, set goals and feel more in tune with the purpose of being in school.
Arundel teacher Molly Sinnott sees GCC as a vital part of development. “We talk often in education about the importance of educating the ‘whole child,’ ” she says. “GCC creates an intentional place in a freshman student’s schedule to connect with a teacher and classmates in a relevant, creative way. The skills we build are undeniably foundational for civic participation and social-emotional growth.”
Now that GCC has expanded to all public high schools in the county, educators have the opportunity to tailor the class to the unique needs of their school and community at large. “The course is at its best when it taps into the most authentic information about the physical community where our students live,” Sinnott explains, citing that students love to apply the course to their daily lives instead of learning about it in the abstract.
Students agree that the class has been rewarding. For Arundel junior John Cardwell, the class taught him how to assert himself and be a changemaker. “This class contributed to a lot of who I am today,” he says. “It changed my mindset on global issues and taught me how to listen to all sides of stories, not just the ones on the surface.”
Junior Elliana Anderson emphasizes that it’s about more than learning tolerance. “Where the world teaches tolerance, this class teaches acceptance and empathy,” she says. “You are not taught to tolerate something or someone; you’re taught to find new perspectives, to put yourself into other people’s shoes and try to understand.”
The best part, according to those involved, is that no matter what a student’s academic strength or personal interests, they’ll take something valuable from GCC that they will be able to use in life. As Davenport puts it, “No matter what career they go into, they’re going to need these skills.”
Listen to the podcast with students and teachers from Arundel High School about the Global Community Citizen Course.