National History Day: Who Participates, Who Doesn’t?

I spent yesterday morning volunteering some of my time as a judge at the National History Day competition, Central Indiana District. This is the second time I’ve volunteered to judge for National History Day and I very much enjoy the experience. Last year I judged high school-aged exhibit projects; this year I judged websites created by middle school students. With both years I saw some projects that were clearly last-minute concoctions that relied too much on questionable sources such as the History Channel’s website or interviews with family members. One student even commented in an interview with me that they felt they didn’t need to read any books about their subject because there were a couple websites that provided enough information. YIKES! Nevertheless, these submissions are often the exception to the rule. Most projects are excellent and reflect months of hard work and research. It is a pleasure to help all of these students on their learning journeys.

It’s safe to say there are plenty of young students who take a keen interest in history from a young age. Tens of thousands of American students participate in National History Day annually; in Indiana there were 4,600 students who participated this year, including roughly 500 from the Central Indiana Region.

While I am pleased to see these high numbers, it is striking to analyze who is participating in National History Day and who is not. With regards to Central Indiana I find it significant that the vast majority of participants are coming from mostly white middle class public and private schools in a suburban setting. Students in the Indianapolis Public School District–the ones who live closest to the IUPUI campus in downtown Indianapolis where the competition is held–are noticeably absent from the competition. The participants of National History Day in Central Indiana don’t reflect the actual community of students within the region, and I find that regrettable.

Having spoken to several organizers of National History Day within the state I know they are concerned about the lack of participants from impoverished and under-served areas. I am not sure of the extent of their efforts in promoting National History Day in these regions, but I wonder how we as a community can encourage all students to participate in the event. Are these discrepancies reflective of a lack of awareness, a lack of interest, a lack of accessibility, or a combination of all three? I don’t have any answers, but I would like to know about efforts in others parts of the United States towards making National History Day a more inclusive event.

What do you think?