The political climate in the U.S. seems to have reached one of its divisive peaks, and Gwinnett County Public Schools is investigating how it can bridge future gaps in political discourse, staring in the district’s classrooms.

In Gwinnett County, 77% of registered voters cast ballots during the 2016 general election. The 2018 general election saw 64.34% of voters cast ballots. Both of those were above the state percentages — .55% higher in 2016 and 2.9% higher in 2018. The school district is focused on the relationship between education and civic responsibility by exploring links to registered voter turnout.

Data from Electionsproject.org shows that more-educated voting-age citizens are more likely to turn out to polls. In 2018, slightly more than 40% of high school graduates in the U.S. turned out to polls, while less than 30% of people with less than a high school education cast ballots. Voters with some college education or college graduates posted a 60% turnout rate, and more than 70% of voters with a post-graduate education turned out. Data also showed an overall decline in voter turnout in the voting-age population with less than a high school diploma until the 2018 election.

During a monthly Board of Education work session Oct. 17 at the J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center, Associate Superintendent Jonathan Patterson introduced the district’s primary objectives pertaining to civic engagement. Patterson said in his presentation to the board that GCPS students should learn to “embrace the Constitution as a living, breathing, real and aspirational document, engage in the democratic process and use the levers of American democracy to influence others,” learn to discern fact from fiction, frame persuasive ideas and talk across political and cultural lines to avoid division and to disagree while still being able to engage.

A program affiliated with Religious Freedom Center in Washington, D.C., is providing professional development for leaders and educators to facilitate the role of public schools as a “guardian of democracy.” The Georgia 3Rs Project — standing for Rights, Responsibility and Respect — looks to provide a framework for how educators can responsibly teach the tenants of the First Amendment of the Constitution while leaving the door open for students to come to their own conclusions.

Religious Freedom Center Project Manager David Callaway recognized there can sometimes be a fine line between what is considered educational and what is considered offensive.

“You have to teach chemistry poorly for a long time for someone to say something,” he said.

That’s not necessarily the case when teaching the first amendment. Through the professional development opportunities with the Georgia 3Rs project, teachers can learn how to teach the Constitution without political spin and worry of backlash from concerned parents and guardians of students. The project does this by focusing on the broadest definition of the First Amendment — the freedom of one’s own ideals — rather than boiling it down to the freedom of speech, assembly, press or religion.

“When you’re in the classroom, you wear your First Amendment hat,” Callaway said.

The program offers beginner, intermediate and advanced tiers of professional development of teachers. The model shows student councils, mock elections and a civic diploma seal can show support for civic engagement at the local school level.

GCPS Director of Social Studies Grades 6-12 Kathy Sanchez said, whether by birth or citizenship, every student must learn to become American by enacting their civic right to vote.

“Knowledge of the Constitution isn’t passed in the gene pool,” she said. “Kids have to learn it, and we have to want to do it.”