Yesterday morning I had the pleasure of visiting Calgary's "City Hall School", an inspiring education center built right into the main floor of City Hall.
While most cities offer some kind of City Hall 'tour' for kids, I've never seen anything like this program. At City Hall School, students spend an entire week learning about democracy through a customized hands-on participatory curriculum.
Over 10,000 students have participated in this unique program designed to provide "a wealth of opportunities for students and teachers to participate in the public realm, becoming informed and civically engaged citizens."
I can't imagine anything more important than giving young people the tools and confidence they need to become engaged citizens. Empowerment requires knowledge, understanding and awareness of the political systems that exist all around us.
One thing I really like about the City Hall School classroom, is the visibility. Rather than isolate the classroom in the basement or in a far off corner, City Hall School is in the main lobby of City Hall directly across the hall from the Council Chambers. The only thing that separates the students from the rest of City Hall, is a huge glass wall.
I think this transparency serves three important functions. First, it reminds the kids - all the time - that they belong there and that they're part of the building's purpose and function. Second, it contributes towards a welcoming tone and environment for City Hall visitors (rather than the bureaucratic tone often set by adults wearing business attire...). Third, it probably has a positive effect on the politicians to be frequently in the presence of curious, observant children.
At one point the teacher asked the kids "Who owns City Hall?". The answer, of course: they do. However, she also explained that collective ownership is universal and includes everyone. She delicately explained that sometimes homeless people spend time in the municipal building, for warmth or to use the washrooms, and that those homeless people are also citizens and deserve as much respect as any other visitors. In other words, it's not just the curriculum that is educational, but also the simple act of being at City Hall and thinking about the significance of being in a "public space".
One interesting moment occurred when the students were asked to figure out how many votes were needed to win a motion at City Council. There are fourteen members of Council, plus the mayor. "Eight votes", the kids all quickly said. But then one student said "... but the mayor has the final say... right?". The teacher didn't answer the question, but rather asked the kids what they thought the answer was. In the end, the teacher simply said "Well, we're going to be meeting the mayor later in the week. You can ask him the question yourself!".
What an amazing empowering experience, to spend time at City Hall, develop your own questions about how power is shared in our democracy, and then to have a chance to ask those questions directly to those who currently hold power.
If kids aren't given a road map to democracy, they're unlikely to participate politically when they're older. City Hall school is the best example I've ever seen, of what that roadmap can look like.
Note: I should mention that there is another City Hall School in Edmonton, Alberta (hence the title of this blog post), and I'm hoping to visit them in January!
Another note: Big thank you to Jody Danchuk, City Hall School Jody Coordinator, for allowing me to spend some time in the classroom.