America is suffering from a recession in civic engagement - we're not voting, we're not volunteering, we're not active in our communities - and the solution is to instill civic values in our schoolchildren.

That is the consensus of a report, the Pennsylvania Civic Health Index, released Wednesday at the National Constitution Center.

It showed Pennsylvania's results were about as dismal as the nation's: 70 percent voter registration for the state, 71 percent for the nation; 51 percent voter turnout for ages 18 to 29 in the 2008 election, 52.9 percent for the age group nationally.

In Pennsylvania, only 11 percent of citizens had contacted or visited a public official; 8 percent attended a meeting where political issues were discussed; 3 percent took part in a political march, rally, protest, or demonstration; 7 percent worked with neighbors to fix a community problem.

"Across the board, our nation is in a civic recession," said David Eisner, president and chief executive officer of the National Constitution Center.

He said Pennsylvanians in the new year need to put resolutions to improve citizenship up with efforts to lose weight and work out.

Gov. Rendell, attending the news conference, said education was the only hope for change.

"You can't teach civics to 60-year-olds, 40-year-olds, or 18-year-olds," he said. "You've got to start at the earliest ages in our schools.

"The three areas that are most important where Pennsylvania needs to improve: registering to vote and voting, number one; number two, civic action; and number three, volunteerism.

"Voting is the very heart of our democracy and the only way to bring about real change," he added.

"How many volunteer to tutor a young child in reading?" he asked. "Those things make a huge difference not only in our society, but one life at a time."

Emelie Ureña, 19, of Philadelphia, a high school dropout who returned to school two years later, ended the news conference with her story.

Returning to Fairhill Community High School, an accelerated program designed for dropouts, she underwent a transformation. She got involved with the Philadelphia Youth Network and, as a youth ambassador working with other dropouts, learned how to talk to people and to understand the power of getting involved and caring not only about yourself but others.

In 2008, she said, when she was working at her mother's store at Westmoreland and E Streets, a masked robber held them up at gunpoint.

Ureña found out the robber was a 16-year-old boy she knew in the neighborhood. A week later:

"The same young man, not knowing I knew he was the robber, came back and sat next to me in front of my mother's store," she said. "We began speaking about priorities and basic needs."

He told her his parents had started him out robbing for them as a young boy, and he had just continued, dropping out of school.

"I told him it was very important to get things on your own so you can value the sacrifices that you did to get them," she said. "I let him know that more than anything, education is the best way to go. I couldn't believe that I was sitting here helping someone that just a week earlier had put a gun to my face. If I had not left school and never been engaged, I would not have been able to share this with him."

Ureña said the young man was now back in high school. And she is volunteering at a homeless shelter, tutoring children to read, and attending Barry University in Florida, majoring in business.

After she finished, Rendell said, "She's a great example of what we're striving for." And, he added, "not that there's anything wrong with Barry," but had she received a good civics education as a child, "Emelie, you might be at Harvard today."

Contact staff writer Michael Vitez at 215-313-3518 or mvitez@phillynews.com.