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#ProjectCitizen: Does the Pledge of Allegiance still mean something in schools?

Students at Montebello Gardens Elementary recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The school is part of the Montebello Unified School District.
Students at Montebello Gardens Elementary recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The school is part of the Montebello Unified School District.
Mary Plummer/KPCC

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This is one part in a new KPCC series looking at the rights, responsibilities, traditions and privileges that come along with being a citizen. Let us know what you think.

Another school year means the littlest Southern California students are learning the ins and outs of their new school life: kissing their parents goodbye outside the school gates, putting their backpacks in the right cubbyhole and, for most, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

That oath has been a tradition in U.S. public schools since it was written 1892. At McKinley School in Pasadena, which serves transitional kindergarten-eighth graders, students are required to say the pledge every day.

During a recent visit kindergarteners and first graders got the words right, but the meaning escaped them.

RELATED: #ProjectCitizen: What does it mean to be a good citizen?

"The Pledge of Allegiance means you're grateful," said first-grade student Kiana Mangona. 

Her classmate Janelle Castillo had a different idea.

"It means, like, you be nice to God," she said.

Kindergarten teacher Kathleen Bergman, who's been teaching for 12 years, said each year she juggles teaching basic concepts — like right and left, and how to tie your shoes — with deeper ideas like citizenship and the Pledge of Allegiance. One challenge: students reach school with broad skill gaps.

"You have to teach them thinking that they have no knowledge," she said.

When it comes to the pledge, that means explaining it very simply. Bergman said she explains it to students this way: "It's a promise to love our country and that we're lucky to have some of the freedoms we have in our country."

A simplistic understanding of the pledge spreads far beyond kindergarten, according to Peter Levine an expert on patriotism at Tufts University's Jonathan Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.

"I've never seen much actual teaching of the Pledge," he said. "I don't think it gets used educationally very much. I think it get's used almost purely as ritual." 

RELATED: Eight facts you didn't know about the Pledge of Allegiance

Levine believes there's a value in teaching students about patriotism, and that it's an important factor for a successful republic. Yet most schools don't take on patriotism along with the reading, writing and arithmetic, he said. He thinks schools ought to use the pledge as a teaching tool.

For some teachers though, the tradition of saying the pledge on a daily basis has a value of its own.

"Over the years, I've noticed some teachers don't do it regularly," said first grade teacher Nicolasa Gonzalez. "I do it every morning."

 "I just think that it's important for them to understand the patriotism of it," she said.

Gonzalez teaches at Montebello Gardens Elementary in Pico Rivera. The principal there gathers the entire student body to say the Pledge of Allegiance in unison every Friday under the school's large flagpole. Teachers are also expected to recite the pledge on a daily basis every morning with their individual classes.

The school's principal, Norma Perez, said the daily recitation helps students appreciate living in the United States. Being a good citizen, she said, is concept even young children can benefit from.

"As little as they are, at age 5 and 6, they can be kind to other children, to their family," she said. "It's just good moral values to be a good citizen wherever you are."

Students at her school do get specific lessons in patriotism in the third grade, said teacher Tony Carrillo. But during a recent visit on the first week of school, they were still muddling through.

For Michael Castellon, 7, citizenship is about the joys of life.

"People let you play sports and go in school. To me it's just like, to be together," he said. "To have fun."