Jenn Smith | Recess: When students write the curricula on transforming education

Aleita Cook, the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit, was a Providence high school junior when the suit (Cook v. Raimondo) was filed Nov. 29, 2018.

BOSTON — On Nov. 8, 2018, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law that all public high schools and school districts serving eighth grade students must offer these students a dedicated civics education.

The bill's authors further declared: "In all public schools, history of the United States of America and social science, including civics, shall be taught as required subjects to promote civic service and a greater knowledge thereof and to prepare students, morally and intellectually, for the duties of citizenship."

Around the same time, just over an hour's drive south on the I-95 corridor, students and families from Providence, R.I., were in the process of filing a federal lawsuit against their state officials, citing the failure of legislative and school officials to adequately provide the kind of civics lessons needed for a 21st-century electorate wading through waves of misinformation and social media-enabled mudslinging amidst a climate of public mistrust in government.

I recently met Aleita Cook, the lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit, who was a Providence high school junior, just turning 17, when the suit (Cook (A.C.) v. Raimondo) was filed Nov. 29, 2018.

Now a high school graduate, Cook was on her way to joining some of her fellow plaintiffs and student advocates in receiving the New England First Amendment Coalition's 2020 Antonia Orfield Citizenship Award. The honor is given "to New Englanders who have fought for information crucial to the public's understanding of its community or what its government is doing — or not doing — on its behalf."

During the time leading up to the lawsuit, Cook told me that while she didn't know much about voting and taxes, she had been learning about organizing and activism through participating in student groups like Providence Student Union, PrYSM (that's Providence Youth Student Movement) for Justice and Love, ARISE (Alliance of Rhode Island Southeast Asians for Education) Youth Leaders among others.

Look them up, and let their work blow your mind.

Between 2014 and 2015, for example, PSU successfully lobbied for bus passes for students. Previously only students living more than 3 miles from school were eligible. But after making officials attempt to walk a 3-mile route on a February morning, the city's mayor announced that the transportation system would give students an extra mile.

As a high school student, Cook and her classmates advocating for the civics education reform had to go to school each day catching the side eye from teachers suspicious that the students were going after them. But Cook said they're mistaken.

"We're just trying to hold the school accountable for the curriculum that's being handed to these teachers, that teachers have to teach, which a) doesn't make sense, b) is hard, and c) doesn't fit everybody's learning abilities," she said.

As part of their argument, the plaintiffs noted how only 23 percent of Rhode Island eighth graders passed the 2014 civics test on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Something is clearly not right.

I asked Cook if it was uncomfortable to go up against her teachers, her representatives and her governor.

"It's not uncomfortable at all," she said. "If somebody does something wrong they need to be held accountable and that's how I feel as an organizer, like, when you're doing this work you cannot just bite your tongue. You have to speak the truth."

Cook's proud to be of a generation that's not afraid to call "BS" and maintain their momentum.

It's the kind of energy the students will need for what lies ahead: Oral arguments were heard in December on the pending motions to dismiss their civics lawsuit. The judge's decision is expected sometime this spring. Meanwhile, Providence Public Schools are in the midst of a state takeover.

Back here in Massachusetts, schools have until the 2022-23 academic year to put their own civics education plans into place. But if administrators and teachers are smart, they won't wait, because this generation of students likely won't have it.

"Let students take control," Cook offers as advice. "Let students be in the forefront because we've experienced it and we know what we're talking about. Give us the mic for once. Let our voice speak out. Hear us out, for once, and let us have a seat at the table.

"If you want the school system, the lunches, whatever to change, let students do the work," she said, "and I'm pretty sure it will change and it will be way better than how you had it in the first place."

Jenn Smith can be reached at, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.