Project Citizen prompts public testimony by Eagle River middle schoolers

Monday, March 27, 2017 - 15:01

A trio of Gruening Middle School students took a stand before the Anchorage School Board Monday, urging board members to consider adding substance abuse counselors to local high schools.

They were scared, they said, but they didn’t show it.

Lauren Waite, Aubrey Roberts and Alyssa Adrian had spent weeks studying their topic, part of an annual eighth-grade assignment known as Project Citizen. The public testimony was one of the final steps.

“My favorite part was getting to research it all; getting to find out how many teens use drugs and knowing we can maybe help prevent it,” said Roberts, 14.

An initiative of the national Center for Civic Education, Project Citizen pushes middle schoolers to research and propose solutions to complex community issues. Gruening is the only middle school in the Anchorage School District to participate in Project Citizen, said Kelsey Gerke, a social studies teacher at the school.

This year, besides substance abuse, her students tackled problems like homelessness and high crime. While the girls brought their class proposal before the school board, other classes planned on making presentations to the Anchorage Assembly.

“They do really care about important, serious stuff, and they notice stuff that’s going on around them,” Gerke said. “And they have that young sense of injustice – they think something should be done.”

Each class project involves three basic steps: selecting a problem, researching potential solutions and then proposing a plan of attack. By developing an action plan, Gerke said, the students learn how policies are enacted and who they need to convince to see one through. It’s an extensive process.

“There were a lot of guest speakers that came in and we took a lot of notes,” said Waite, 13.

Over the course of the project, students spoke with the director of the local methadone clinic and their school resource officer, Gerke said. They learned that addiction often begins during the formative teen years, and they learned about its chilling effect on graduation rates and success after high school.

To combat the problem, the students proposed reviving a formerly grant-funded program placing substance abuse counselors in local schools. Representing their class at the March 6 school board meeting, the three spoke confidently about their plan.

“For students to be able to have this help, without being nervous to talk to their parents,” said Adrian, 14. “I think that would be really helpful.”

Other Gruening students, concerned about public safety, planned to petition the assembly for an increase in local law enforcement.

“A lot of news that they were seeing was all this crime,” Gerke said. “So (the students) did a lot of research and discovered Anchorage staffing is below the national average.”

That class decided to ask assembly members to support an ordinance requiring the Anchorage Police Department to staff itself in line with nationwide averages. Meanwhile, a third class chose to focus on homelessness, eyeing possible changes to municipal zoning law as a way to accommodate tiny home construction within the Municipality of Anchorage.

Various communities around the country have successfully reduced their homeless populations via tiny home projects, and Gerke said her students were inspired to push for a change locally. They listened to more guest speakers, asked questions of the Anchorage zoning department and decided to request the assembly support expanding the areas that allow for tiny home construction – a potentially actionable request, Gerke said.

For the students, though, the exercise is about the process as much as the results. Through Project Citizen, their teacher said, they learn how to affect change in their schools and cities – how to develop policy proposals and petition their local representatives.

For Gerke, it’s “the hardest and best” part of the school year. It’s one thing to teach about how government works; it’s thing to actually push an idea through the political process, she said.

“To be a 14-year-old kid and have to testify — how many kids have that experience?” Gerke said. “Teens get a bad rap, but they actually do want to fix the problems that they see.”

Contact reporter Kirsten Swann at kirsten.swann@alaskastar.com

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