A Case for Change: RI students demand an education that includes civics classes

Most people don’t think twice about the necessity of filing taxes, though it’s often considered an agonizing affair. Yet to 17-year-old Aleita Cook, knowing how to do her taxes, how to register to vote and how to serve on a jury aren’t skills she was exposed to because throughout her education in the Providence school system, she didn’t take one civics class.

Cook, who currently is a senior at the Providence Career and Technical Academy, is among 14 Rhode Island students who filed a federal lawsuit that claims RI violates their constitutional rights by providing a substandard education that does not require them to take civics classes. According to Cook, not having those classes makes young learners ill-prepared for life after they graduate. “Going into the real world, you need the knowledge that civics gives you,” she said. 

Civics classes are vital for students to help them navigate life once they graduate and teaches them about their duties as members of society. Students who aren’t exposed to civics classes might not realize how important it is to vote or might not understand their basic rights as US citizens.

Cook has high hopes for students if they win their case. “So many doors will open,” she said. “Kids will go to school and say, ‘Oh good, I’m learning about the different branches of government.’”

Another reason Cook joined the suit was to inspire other students across the country. “This can be an opportunity for other students in other states to think, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’ I want to help motivate students to be active in their own communities, schools and states.” Cook has always considered herself an activist, but the suit helped her decide to study law in the future. “This case is helping me build my activism career while expanding my knowledge,” she said.

But Cook must first focus on the case, which has gotten a fair amount of attention since it was filed in November. Late night political talk show host Bill Maher flew one of the involved students to LA to be acknowledged on his show, and “The Daily Show” recently contacted Cook for an interview. Cook couldn’t be happier that people are taking notice, “I’m so stoked people are taking interest and that our voices are being heard.”

To the people who see this case as unimportant, Cook has something to say. “If you don’t know how to file taxes or take out a loan or buy your first house, it can jeopardize your life. It’s just as important as math, science, or English.”

Cook feels grateful for the outpouring of support from friends, teachers and her family throughout this process, and jokes about how much it has impacted her life. “My friends think I’m famous now,” Cook said with a laugh. It’s easy to see, though, that this young activist is it in not for the fame, but to make real change in the school system and impact the lives of her fellow students.