Political activists spark civic engagement and American history education in Youngstown City Schools

Classroom 2 Capitol Executive Director Chris Stanley (left) and Community Engagement Director Anthony Stratis (right)
Classroom 2 Capitol Executive Director Chris Stanley (left) and Community Engagement Director Anthony Stratis (right)

YOUNGSTOWN — Two political activists used their grade school trip to Washington D.C. as motivation to inspire Youngstown City School students to lead a civically engaged life.

The non-profit organization Classroom 2 Capitol funds trips for students in economically challenged communities to Washington D.C. as a part of the regular curriculum.

Chris Stanley, executive director, and Anthony Stratis, director of community engagement, co-founded the organization to better prepare Youngstown City School students on American history education.

Stanley taught middle- and high-schoolers as a history teacher at Youngstown City Schools from September 2019 to November 2021.

Stanley said Youngstown students don't have the opportunity to visit Washington D.C., like suburban school districts, as a part of their American history education.

"We are failing those students by [not] doing that because to go there and be in our nation's capital where the history is alive. … it's the power center of the world," he said. "That's an experience that's transformative."

Stanley, who is now a business analyst for a security agency that works with the U.S. Department of Defense, and ran for the Ohio House of Representatives' 59th District seat in 2020, said as a history teacher he noticed a lack of future leadership in his students.

"These students don't see themselves as the next generation of leaders in our community," he said. "Maybe this trip will pay off some dividends, but if we don't have someone who becomes the next mayor, hopefully these students will learn how to disagree, and how to come to compromise."

The organization provides "every single meal, lodging, transportation, security guards, [a] professional tour guide and nine chaperones," for $500 per student, Stanley said. Ninety junior and senior students from Chaney High School, Youngstown Early College High School and East High School plan to attend a May 2022 trip, he said.

Camille Townsend, a senior at Chaney High School in Youngstown, plans to attend to learn more about her father's history in the U.S. Army.

"I know there's a veteran wall [Stanley] was telling us about," Townsend said. "I would really love to see the wall, and honor those who fought for our country."

Stanley said he does not think there is a lack of teaching at Youngstown City Schools, but a larger problem in the U.S. with civic education.

"Naturally, the resources for social studies, civics education and government have dropped precipitously," he said. "You're seeing this played out around the country."

Only 36% of Americans can pass a multiple choice test with selections from the U.S. Citizenship Test, according to a 2018 survey from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

Additionally, the survey found large gaps in knowledge based on age, where 74% of individuals who were 65 years old passed the test, but only 19% of individuals under 45 years old passed.

"Every state decides 'What is history?' on their own, which is insane," Stanley said. "They choose what can be taught. … The only thing that unites us as people is [the Constitution]."

State and local governments are responsible for developing curricula, and determining requirements for student enrollment, under federal education guidelines.

Townsend said traveling outside of Youngstown can further students' education on the nation's history that they do not get in the classroom.

"Getting students who've never even left our little city or state — getting them out there in the world. … it's really important for everyone to learn about it," she said.

Of the estimated 51,000 eligible voters in Youngstown, according to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau data, only 7,868 people cast votes for their next mayor in the November 2021 general election.

Stratis said he fears voting turnout will continue to decline with irregular history and civic engagement education.

"The lack of civility in politics has been the biggest deterrent for people to vote," Stratis said. "Teaching kids how to have this debate, and have civil discourse in order to get things done will do our area so much more good."

Stratis said Classroom 2 Capitol works with community partners such as My Brother's Keeper and the YMCA in Youngstown to promote youth in government with public service opportunities.

"We're not just taking students to Washington D.C., we're bringing government to these students," he said. "Our ultimate product is to create someone that you're going to know in 15 years, and is going to be hopefully the next mayor of Youngstown or congressman."

Townsend said if it wasn't for Stanley sharing his passion for history education with his students, her love for history would not be as prominent in her education.

"No one is better at teaching history than [Mr. Stanley]," she said. "He really likes teaching about it, and I think I learned a lot from him."

If you're interested in sponsoring a student for the upcoming trip, visit Classroom2Capitol.com.

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