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N.H. Historical Society launches ‘Democracy Project’ to address civics deficit

  • New Hampshire Historical Society employee Christopher Moore looks toward a display on Gen. John Stark and the New Hampshire militia at the New Hampshire Historical Society’s Park Street building in Concord on Thursday. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • The powder horn used by Capt. John Calfe of Hampstead during the American Revolution is seen in the Discovering New Hampshire exhibit at the New Hampshire Historical Society's historic Park Street building in Concord on Thursday. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Portraits of President Franklin Pierce and Daniel Webster are seen in the Discovering New Hampshire exhibit at the New Hampshire Historical Society's historic Park Street building in Concord on Thursday, July 13, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • A painting of the Battle of Gettysburg is seen in the Discovering New Hampshire exhibit at the New Hampshire Historical Society's historic Park Street building in Concord on Thursday, July 13, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • A display describing the key role Gen. John Stark and the New Hampshire militia played in the American Revolution is seen at the Discovering New Hampshire exhibit in the New Hampshire Historical Society's historic Park Street building in Concord on Thursday, July 13, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Retired Supreme Court justice David Souter speaks with Girls Inc. students as part of the New Hampshire Humanities program on civics engagement. Courtesy New Hampshire Humanities

  • New Hampshire Historical Society’s President William H. Dunlap. New Hampshire Historical Society—Courtesy



Monitor staff
Friday, July 14, 2017

About a year ago, William Dunlap, the president of the New Hampshire Historical Society, had what he now recounts as his “canary in the coal mine moment.”

The society’s director of education, Elizabeth Dubrulle, had come to him to say that the organization’s “New Hampshire at War” outreach program should be suspended. The fourth- and fifth-grade students the program targeted just didn’t have the requisite baseline knowledge to make it worth it.

“You ask: who did we fight in the American Revolution? And they say ISIS,” Dubrulle said in an interview. (One student offered a less topical answer: the Greeks.)

The historical society is proposing a three-pronged approach to address what they say is a precipitous decline in basic social studies knowledge at the younger grades: create a new, updated elementary social studies curriculum, offer teacher training, and advocate with administrators and school boards, district-by-district, to make history and civics a priority again.

They’re calling it “The Democracy Project: Renewing History and Civics in New Hampshire Schools” and have enlisted New Hampshire Humanities, the New Hampshire Institute for Civics Education, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation to help.

Dubrulle said teachers – and especially older teachers – point to high-stakes testing in math and English as the culprit. Since Congress passed No Child Left Behind in 2002, schools have been required to test annually in those subjects and report the results out publicly. That means history and civics have fallen by the wayside.

“They all say the same thing. It’s not tested. The teachers are under so much pressure to teach to the test,” Dubrulle said.

Dubrulle said there’s also a lack of leadership at the state level. At the department of education, the social studies coordinator retired, and, in a budget crunch, wasn’t replaced. The state’s social studies standards were adopted over 10 years ago.

There has been some movement on the issue already. In recent meetings, the State Board of Education has discussed revisiting New Hampshire’s social studies standards – and the historical society has agreed to help. In addition, a new law passed this session requiring at least one half-credit of civics in order to graduate from high school.

But Dunlap said the society wants to make sure younger students are still learning the basics.

“Some people say: what’s the big problem? We’ll teach 10th graders civics,” he said. “When it comes time to learn civics and some of the more complex concepts, they’re in a much better place to learn effectively if they have a more solid baseline.”

The society wants to dedicate full-time staff to the four-year project, and have set a fundraising goal of $1.2 million. Dunlap said they’ve already gotten just shy of $100,000 in grant funding.

Cathy Furlong, who retired from Beaver Meadow School in Concord about two years ago, said the teachers she knew worked hard to keep civics integrated in the curriculum.

But Furlong, who worked in New Hampshire schools for nearly four decades, agreed teachers didn’t have the time or flexibility they once had to teach certain subjects with as much depth.

“I think part of it is all the testing that’s come in,” she said.

Furlong said she dealt with the renewed emphasis on math and English by using history and civics content in math or language-arts related projects.

And an inter-disciplinary and project-based approach is what the society will have to take, she said, if they want to be successful.

“It can’t be something that stands alone. You definitely want to take civics and tie it into something,” she said.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)