High school mandates civics course for seniors

New requisite class educates students on climate change, civil rights, politics, and more.

Scientists from the Woodwell Climate Research Center will assist in programming for the new civics course at the high school. — George Brennan

A newly established civics course will be a requirement for seniors at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) going forward.

History teacher and social studies department chair Olsen Houghton presented a broad explanation of the curriculum as it stands to school officials during Monday’s MVRHS school committee meeting.

Instead of placing senior students in different classrooms and separating the curriculum into phases for each room, the entire senior class will take part in the course, in the Performing Arts Center, as a large, interactive lecture.

From there, students will break into smaller groups to focus on different areas of civics and to collaborate with one another and with the seven teachers who are leading the course.

With climate change heading off the year’s course material, seven other topics will guide the curriculum throughout the year, including government and politics, human rights, civil rights, globalization, global economies, and even some Island history related to civics.

The course culminates in a school giveback day, where students involved in the course create an action plan to give back to the Island community in whatever way they can.

This month, Houghton said, some highlights of the course include two scientists visiting from the Woodwell Climate Research Center who both sat on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The scientists’ report was used by the U.N. when looking at the seriousness of climate change impacts within the next few decades, according to Houghton.

Additionally, a group called Protect Our Winters is heading to MVRHS in October to discuss the impacts that climate change has on recreational winter activities like skiing and snowboarding.

“Their main message is passion to policy. If you really enjoy something, get behind it, and make sure it doesn’t go away,” Houghton said.

Civics educators at the high school are also in conversation with Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary to put together a series of climate summits for senior students. “This is something that will run throughout the year, even though the climate change segment is only 10 classes,” Houghton explained.

He added that the climate summits need a great deal of student involvement, and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission is also seeking student input in putting together a climate action plan for the Island.

Noli Taylor, senior director of programming at Island Grown Initiative (IGI), has been working to connect the high school to other sustainability groups on the Island, and students will attend sustainable agriculture tours at the IGI Farm Hub. “IGI is very close to the high school, so we should take advantage of that as much as we can,” Houghton said. 

The civics teachers have also contacted the League of Women Voters to get involved in the program, and are hoping to work with the MV NAACP in the civil rights aspect of the course.

Patti Favreau asked if teachers have received specific training to handle conflict resolution in the civics course, and to be able to facilitate productive conversation on issues like the right to choose, or Black Lives Matter.

Principal Sara Dingledy said there has been some reflective training for teachers, and some past years have involved restorative training regarding how to approach difficult conversations and set ground rules.

“I would say that many of the teachers have gone through that in their professional development,” Dingledy said.


Back in session

Students and staff are back in schools, and Superintendent Matt D’Andrea said staff vaccine numbers are reportedly high, based on a survey among staff that received 442 responses.

The school system has a little over 500 staff, and out of the 442 responses so far, 96.8 percent have reported being fully vaccinated

D’Andrea noted President Biden’s workplace vaccine mandate, but said that mandate does not apply to school systems at this time.

Across the Island, according to D’Andrea, 70 percent of all year-round residents are vaccinated, and the vaccine is slated to be approved for younger children at the end of September.

The high school is working with Martha’s Vineyard Hospital to try and get an accurate read on the number of students on-Island who are vaccinated, but D’Andrea said that has proven difficult, as many young seasonal residents who are not part of the school system received vaccines over the summer. “I would say we are hovering around 70 percent of those kids who are eligible have been vaccinated, although that is just an estimate,” D’Andrea said.

Island schools are also working on getting their testing system in place, including their rapid testing and their surveillance pool testing programs.

“We have finally received our first shipment of the Binaxnow COVID tests for the state testing program, and also some of our supplies for our surveillance testing program,” D’Andrea said.

The testing program requires that people sign consent forms, and currently there are more than 600 staff and students who have consented to the testing program.

D’Andrea said his office will issue a report every Thursday outlining the number of students and staff who test positive, and he will also continue to host community forums on Tuesdays at 5 pm.

Although there is not currently a requirement for all students and staff to consent to testing, D’Andrea is requiring all students who wish to participate in sports to be tested.



  1. Civics was a required course when I was in high school in the fifties. I’ve often wondered why it was ever dropped. Would a more informed public prevented some recent fiascos? One would think so!

    • What is civics?
      Teaching that protesting the government is a right?
      That protesting the government should be punished?
      Somewhere in between?

    • The generation that received civics courses is the same one that consumes One America News, that believes anything that they read on facebook, and that comprises the backbone of the Republican party, whose members think that the presidential election was stolen and whom collect conspiracy theories like postage stamps. The “civics” courses of the fifties were concerned with ideological indoctrination, the cold war, and 19th-century parliamentary procedure. They did not cover anything about America that was at all embarrassing or evil. Schools were still segregated. The MVRHS course is surely an improvement, but I deride the idea that the lack of fifties-style civics courses is responsible for our society’s woes –the people who took those courses are a large part of the problem.

      • Alexis– I am not sure what the point of your comment is.
        I think you are in favor of this change in curriculum
        i took civics courses in the early 60’s.. I learned about how our government is set up, and how it works– I learned about the different branches of our government. I learned about the rights and responsibilities that I had as citizen of this country. i served in the military. I am an honorably discharged Vietnam era veteran. ( I never set foot there) .
        I am quite offended that you think that young people who took civics classes in the 50’s or 60’s are the idiots that are clinging to right wing conspiracy sites such as one America.
        I will disagree with you that the people who took civics courses in the 50’s and 60’s are the problem.
        I for one was educated as to the workings of our government.
        The problem today is undereducated trump supporters who could care less about how the government works.
        The cult followers of One America are beholden to the idea that a wanna be dictator who hates people of color or the rule of law is their divinely inspired leader and can disregard the constitution and it’s long held values and rights.
        Alexis– I respect your right to have an opinion.
        But quite frankly , i am not sure what your point is..
        Please clarify.. Thanks.

        • To clarify, my point is that the same people who trot out the old chestnut that “our society is breaking down because we don’t teach civics anymore” are the most reliably conservative age cohort. I don’t think we disagree about whether or not conservative ideology is a problem right now. But you seem fixated on the idea that the issue is dumdums and cultists. In this year of our FSM 2021, it is not. Those same cultists will boo Trump if he tells them to get vaccinated. The ideas come from the bottom of the republican party and percolate up, and they revolve around the perceived sense of loss of power over our culture and the world. The wealthy (still a more reliably conservative demographic than the uneducated) are along for the ride.

          More saliently, the same war that you are weirdly proud of kind-of sort-of serving in is the very reason that they stopped teaching civics courses. Because it was naked propaganda, and the principled students of that generation were not having it. A mental exercise for you: imagine what would have been taught in civics courses immediately following 9/11, or what would have happened to any teacher or school administrator that attempted to introduce any nuance to that discussion. That’s why I am leery of civics courses.

  2. Congratulations to the principal and the administration for putting together this civics course for seniors. In today’s world, it is very needed.

  3. Yes Yes Yes! All Americans should be taught civics…we see what happens to politics when voters don’t understand why they are voting!

  4. I agree. I am very happy that the seniors are being taught civics. Maybe it should start earlier in high school. It’s important that all Americans understand the workings of our Democracy.

  5. I’m glad to hear it. Like Mary-Jean Miner, I don’t understand why teaching civics went out of fashion. One place it didn’t was Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Several of the students who survived the 2018 shooting and went on to become political activists attributed their effective engagement to the government and theater courses they’d taken in school.

    I do wonder if that isn’t a lot to cram into one course, especially one scheduled for senior year, when many students are starting to focus on what comes after graduation. Here’s hoping that some of those topics will be touched on in other courses earlier in a student’s high school career.

  6. Doesn’t sound like a real civics class. Traditionally a civics class offers students an examination of the biblical foundations of the United States, different types of government, the three branches of the U.S. government, the role of the state governments, citizenship, and economics. Not the PC nonsense outlined here.

    • Our government should be teaching our children about the Bible?
      What about the Quran?
      Those two books were introduced to North America at about the same time.
      Should the wonders of Christ be taught along side the wonders of Mohammed?
      Should freedom from religion be taught?
      What are the significant differences between PC nonsense and Biblical Babble?
      Quran Crazy?

    • I always have a good laugh at the expense of people who fictionalize the “biblical underpinnings” of our creaky republic. How hard you must squint to see a christian saint in someone like Jefferson, who wrote their own version of the bible with all the supernatural elements edited out. Or Ben Franklin, whose irreligious lifestyle is still too spicy to describe in print in a reputable newspaper. Some of the founders were religious men, but they supported religious freedom and not adherence to one creed. Their first post-revolutionary war was with a Muslim state and the resulting treaty affirmed that the

      No cross-eyed revisionists ever mention the founders’ humanism, advocacy and embodiment of the Enlightenment, or the mechanisms of state obviously derived from the Holy Roman Empire (not so holy by 1776). Or any of the other events and examples in the 1425 years between the Council Of Nicea and the drafting of the Declaration Of Independence. Oh no, it’s always “biblical underpinnings.”

      • Lost a line there. I meant to reference the Treaty of Tripoli, written in 1797, which among other things reads: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen (Muslims); and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan (Mohammedan) nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

    • John. There is no biblical foundation for the United States. Quite the contrary if you read the first amendment.
      I wonder what you thik is “PC” about educating our children to the realities of the world they are inheriting ? Merriam, Webster defines civics as
      “a social science dealing with the rights and duties of citizens”

      It is the duty of the teachers to educate our children about reality.
      Our children have the right to learn it.

      If you happen to disagree with the basics of the curriculum, you have the right to express your opinion. Thank you for your comment.

    • I took civics when I was in school. There was no mention of any Biblical foundation for our system of government. As Alexis Anderson pointed out, many of the founding fathers were staunchly opposed to the imposition of any religion on the principles this country is based upon.
      Those who would force their beliefs on students are no better than any other religious extremists, no matter which imaginary sky daddy they worship.

  7. Great news and I thank all educators involved, but I must point out that civics class should begin at six or seventh grade. Educating young minds early on about their responsibilities to the social contract is most important and should not wait. Many seniors have already cemented their attitudes towards their personal duty and responsibilities contributing towards the public good, start early and the results will compound.

    • “Educating young minds early on about their responsibilities to the social contract…”

      Absolutely! A significant failure for years has been evidenced by a lack of understanding of how government works (certainly ours, but others as well), the concept of the greater good, and the personal responsibility we all have to keeping our representatives accountable to their constituents – the voters & taxpayers, NOT the donors.

      • We all know how government works.
        When Conservatives win it is by a landslide.
        When they lose it was voter fraud.

  8. I applaud the addition of adding civics in any form to the required curriculum. Years ago, Vineyard writer and philosopher, the late Stan Hart offered a free mini-course called “The Sunday New York Times”, covering many of the same subjects of your new program. It would have been a terrific addition to the curriculum. At the time, the administration wasn’t interested. How about adding swimming to the required curriculum? In my suburban Washington D.C. high school it was a required course for students who could participate. Students had to pass a Red Cross swimming test in order to receive a diploma. This led to optional lifesaving certification and many lifeguard jobs.

  9. Amazing clickbait headline on the first item on your website today. I suppose a simple change to a less charged word like “requirement” wouldn’t get people to read what is otherwise a decently written piece. Words matter. Not every article needs this type of headline. Disappointing. We should be celebrating education that gets kids to think about and understand the world around then.

  10. Bravo! These students are or will soon be eligible to vote. Informed voters are essential to our democracy and our world. I agree, civics classes should be included every year of a student’s education.

      • Seems like you are always obsessed with Trump !
        He’s gone (for now anyway)
        Why don’t you try to be constructive and forward looking ?
        Biden needs all the help he can get now ! His approval and job
        performance ratings are through the floorboards and the worst may
        be coming soon. Help the guy out !

    • Newsflash. This country was founded by liberals. Some adhered to extremely liberal ideas.
      Anyway, your comment was quite predictable. As soon as I saw the headline I knew it would trigger those who oppose a well rounded education.

  11. Alexis, please don’t assume all fifties civics classes were as you describe. Mine, in way northern Maine, definitely covered issues that seem to have wandered away more recently. We certainly were NOT presented any whitewashed (sorry about that) version of our country! Its faults were presented as things we needed to improve. I’ve been trying ever since!

  12. Mr. Houghton was one of the best history teachers I had during my years of school. Congrats to him on getting such a great class into the curriculum.

  13. It should have happened many years go but glad they did it now. The people in power have always feared an educated and engaged population which is why civics was removed from most curriculums in the first place.

  14. Not many Americans know or understand that the USA was designed to be both a participatory and a representative form of democracy. Even fewer Americans know the difference between a Town Hall Meeting and the Town Meeting form of government. Last spring, I was surprised when a few young people at the Edgartown Annual Town Meeting booed a speaker. (I don’t recall either paper mentioning the incident.) I don’t think we can afford to wait until the kid’s senior year in high school to teach civic responsibility.

    • All they did was boo?
      Trump supporters would have given them full barrage of F words like they do to Biden.
      Conservative class is is so rare.

  15. The definition of “civics” is “the study of the rights and duties of citizenship.”

    It is not “Climate change.”

    I fully support the idea of teaching civics, but IMO such a course must be strictly nonpartisan and noncontroversial, teaching the basic concepts that buttress our republican form of government at the national, state, and town level; and the nuts and bolts of how government and electoral politics work at all of those levels.

    Of course all Americans have the right under the First Amendment to express their opinions. It is far more important to inculcate the primacy of this right than to use civics classes as an opportunity to teach certain beliefs and political or scientific convictions.

    The comments on this and many, many other MV Times threads reveal most commenters’ very strong assumption that all readers hold one set of views, and those who do not hold these views have no right to those views and may be insulted at will. It is incredible how quickly—and how predictably—many comment threads descend into ad-hominem off-topic potshots and insults concerning Trump, inoculations, etc.

    If the civics class is successful, it will encourage and teach all students to develop, express, and defend their OWN views, also when they are in a minority, even a minority of one. And it will teach all students to respect those views and debate issues on their merits, not via ad-hominem shortcuts.

  16. These comments make for an interesting read. They also confirm what I have believed for many years. Civics has not been taught as it was intended to be for many many years. It was and should be a freshman course with the intent of giving the students a sound understanding of all the various types of governments that man has come up with throughout history; how these governments are intended to function and how they impact the people they govern. The students need to have a factual, unbias experience that gives them a clear understanding of these various types of governments from which they can the better understand the history classes that follow–World History, Western Civilizations and US History. With an accurate, in-depth understanding of all governmental systems, intelligent discussions about history will lead to and educated electorate which is essential to a stable republic.

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