Crisis in civics ed? Revival is under way.

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If Todd Letimore ever thought the founding documents of the United States of America were simply pieces of history, he's long since left that notion behind.

At the "Constitutional Convention" for Philadelphia's new Constitution High School, Todd and the rest of the inaugural ninth-grade class argued passionately as they set up the school's government. ("The only stipulation was they could not vote me out of office," Principal Thomas Davidson says with a laugh.)

His social studies class is like no class he's had before, Todd says. "We're actually interacting and learning - we actually get a chance to debate and say if we disagree, instead of just sitting there and writing all day."

Part of a growing network of history-focused high schools around the country, it's just one of the creative initiatives under way to equip young people to engage more effectively in American democracy.

Particularly with today's influx of immigrants, "it's important ... to provide some kind of unifying thread, so that students don't simply stay in their own ethnic enclaves ... but understand that there's a similarity among all groups and a shared knowledge of America's past," says Michael Serber, education coordinator at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York, a partner with Constitution High School. Improving history education is also a critical citizenship requirement, he says. "If you're going to deal with issues today, how can you not understand the issues from yesterday?"

According to a recent report, the lack of knowledge about US history, politics, and economics among college students amounts to a "crisis." That alarm sounds periodically, and it's spurring a wide range of responses - some of which simply give better opportunities to students whose civic impulses already run deep. ....

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