"Remember," said Captain Justice, his index finger thrust theatrically into the air.

"Remember," Captain Justice repeated. His face scrunched behind his red mask and his shoulders slumped beneath his red cape as he stood center stage in the Ritter Elementary School gymatorium, trying to summon his next line.

"Remember," Captain Justice shouted, his face bright with relief, "one way to be fair is to share!"

As Pennsylvania's first lady watched, Captain Justice bowed and exited stage left at high speed. Marjorie Rendell winced, for it seemed that the tiny superhero, in bounding joy over ending the skit, was going to slam right into a wall. But the Captain, second grader Carlos Ocasio, stopped at the last moment. Rendell and the other dignitaries applauded in relief.

The first lady was at the Allentown school on this sunny Tuesday because no topic means more to her than citizenship education. And no school in the commonwealth does that better than Ritter.

Besides enjoying the skit, the first lady (a federal appeals court judge) visited classrooms, took part in a mock congressional hearing, and listened as students presented action plans for issues. These all showed how Ritter weaves its citizenship program into its curriculum and everyday life.

The school is a pilot site for a program, developed by the California-based Center for Civic Education, that aims to prevent school violence by focusing on justice, privacy, authority and responsibility.

"Ritter is the model," Maria Gallo said of the center. "Here you see children learning how the skills of citizenship relate to all the other skills they need. You see how a focus on citizenship helps kids feel successful in different ways."

The occasion for Tuesday's activities was release of a study on Ritter's school climate and academic performance. The news was good. Ritter, a majority-minority school in a tidy, working-class neighborhood of a crime-plagued city, produces state test scores dramatically better than other Allentown schools'. Since the program began, bullying is down, trips to the school nurse are down, and teachers and students seem jazzed. Much credit goes to principal Melissa Marcks, who once taught at the school and championed this program.

The first lady was beaming. This was a good day for her on a long, hard road. In a perfect world, public schools would view preparing students for citizenship in a democratic community as important as readying them for jobs. In the real world of mission overload, weak resources and finger-pointing, civic education often gets short shrift. Educators can bristle at having another task added to their burdens.

In Rendell's view, though, a democratic republic cannot thrive when mention of the Bill of Rights draws blank stares, when millions don't vote, when some think judges should be fired if they follow the law rather than the fevered whims of the moment.

She thinks any campaign to instill citizenship has to be "bottom up, not top down," has to start with the youngest citizens and with the enthusiasm of those who teach them.

"Every child can learn to be a good citizen," she said. "It's just a matter of telling kids where they fit, what their responsibility is. Kids respond when you do that."

That's why Rendell helped found the Pennsylvania Coalition for Representative Democracy. Housed at the National Constitution Center, PennCORD sponsors programs statewide to teach kids civic knowledge and the skills of democratic deliberation and public action.

I know, I know: Civics education always drew the nerds; the cool kids would roll their eyes. But there's nothing cool about a nation where kids can't learn because they're scared for their lives, where strangers curse at you for no reason, where people respond to injustice with a shrug. Good citizens vote, but voting alone doesn't make you a good citizen. Not if you drop litter, cut people off on the highway, insult those who differ from you.

Here's one thing of which I'm sure: Captain Justice has a better grasp of what it means to be a good citizen than a lot of adults I know.