Civics 101: New course will teach Newark students how to tackle local problems

Newark students will learn to become “citizen problem-solvers” through a new training program coming soon to the city’s high schools, the mayor and schools chief announced Wednesday.

What is a citizen problem-solver? Exhibit A is Bradley Gonmiah, a Science Park High School senior who at a school-board meeting this summer urged the district to adopt the free course. A few weeks later, and with the encouragement of other engaged citizens, the board voted to do just that.

“Bradley made a powerful pitch for solution civics that was embraced by the school board and embraced by the superintendent,” said Harry Pozycki, a New Jersey-based attorney who created the program. “So now we’re off and running.”

The 10-session course will be incorporated into the American history class that students are required to take in the 11th grade. Students will learn to identify problems in the city, file public-records requests as they gather information, and propose research-based solutions to city officials.

The course is structured around “The 21st Century Citizens Manual,” a self-published book written by Pozycki and distributed by The Citizens Campaign, a 20-year-old nonprofit co-founded by Pozycki and his wife, Caroline. The group has provided 2,220 free copies of the book to Newark Public Schools and helped train 27 social-studies teachers.

Newark will become the first district to require that all high-school students take the course. Individual schools have offered the course in a handful of other New Jersey districts, including Plainfield, where students encouraged officials to add a section about the environment to the city’s master plan — which the officials did, according to Rob Horowitz, a spokesman for the Citizens Campaign.

The course is part of a larger effort by Newark’s new superintendent, Roger León — an avid Newark booster and public-school graduate — to foster a greater sense of civic pride and duty among students.

Leading up to this month’s midterm elections, he partnered with Rutgers University on a campaign that registered about 600 high-school students to vote. And he plans to introduce courses on New Jersey and Newark history in elementary schools, he said Wednesday.

“In Newark, we understand that we are preparing the next generation of citizens and leaders,” León said.

The high-school program is part of a larger “civic city” campaign that Mayor Ras Baraka unveiled Wednesday. It includes a related civics course at Rutgers University-Newark that will be open to students and the public, along with the “Newark Civic Trust,” a group the Citizens Campaign helped form three years ago that brings together residents to propose solutions to local issues.

It was through that group that Gonmiah, the Science Park student who is also a co-leader of the Newark Students Union, first learned about the civics course.

After Wednesday’s announcement at City Hall, Gonmiah said he was excited to see city leaders endorse the program, which he hopes will help students realize “they have the power to actually change things.” But like any good citizen problem-solver, he said wouldn’t rest until the plans are carried out.

“All of these things are cool,” he said. “But we have to make sure it’s actually implemented.”