St. Vrain Builds a Community of Engaged Students

What began as a class assignment landed Silver Creek junior Brooke Wager at the state Capitol where she had the eyes and ears of the House Education Committee.

In March, the 16-year-old and her classmate told committee members about the limitations that expensive college tuition places on students and their families, and suggested solutions to minimize the burden.

“My perspective definitely changed from being very hesitant to feeling like I can make a difference with my voice,” Brooke said.

Brooke’s project is just one way that faculty and staff are encouraging students throughout St. Vrain Valley Schools to engage in civic action.

Social Studies and Secondary Literacy Coordinator for St. Vrain, Jenny Pettit, is helping teachers bring civic action lessons to students at all grade levels. A Civic Action Leadership Team began last year that connects teachers from all grade levels and they created civic action projects that address state standards through thoughtful lesson planning and programs that can be used by all schools throughout the district.

“We think kids can be actively engaged as early as kindergarten so students can be doing good work in the world,” Pettit said. “We are not preparing them to get involved some time in the future. We are giving them a chance to participate now.”

Elementary schools are meeting state standards as students learn about the roles of local, state and national government and the issues they face. Third graders are learning about civil discourse while fourth graders provide supportive arguments for both sides of a current public policy debate. Each summer, two students from each school participate in Young Ameritowne on the Road, a program that combines civic engagement skills, financial literacy and workforce development.

In middle schools teachers focus on different types of governments, the rights and responsibilities of citizens, global conflict and historical U.S. documents. Students are encouraged to take action by writing letters to the editor, attending school board meetings or meeting with school administrators. In the past, students have selected projects ranging from environmental concerns, to local and global issues and state policy topics that impact students.

By the time they reach high school, students are prepared to research and develop an action plan around a policy issue, like Brooke’s project on tuition costs. Other students have tackled funding for homeless veterans and advocated for citywide mental health support.

Another opportunity for high school students is Doing Democracy Day which is held annually in March. Students meet at the The Longmont City Council Chambers. After grouping students together from different schools throughout St. Vrain they are assigned a current topic chosen by a group of students. Then they have the opportunity to interview community leaders and conduct research online. Student teams discuss their findings and present to their peers and a panel of judges.

Brandon Shaffer, the district’s Executive Director of Legal and Governmental Affairs, oversees the Student Senate, which meets throughout the year to discuss bills being considered by local and state governments. The after-school club that started last school year has attracted students from Longmont, Skyline, Niwot, Silver Creek, Frederick, Erie, Mead and Lyons. Students often take over the School Board chamber where they fire up the microphones and sit in member seats for realistic discussions on topics like gun laws and district accreditation.

In March, Shaffer took students to the state Capitol to spend time with local delegates, observe a committee session and sit on the Senate floor.

“You read names in the newspaper or see it on the news but you feel removed from what’s going on,” Shaffer said. “But when you’re able to have an informal conversation with them, you realize these are real people that for one reason or another end up in the political process and it really, I think, imparts for the students that it’s not very difficult to get involved.”

Skyline High School senior Keegan Lynch has been a member of the club for two years now and said students are often disengaged from government because they don’t understand the role politicians play or how policies affect them. But the club is helping students bridge the gap by talking about how the issues affect people at the local level.

“You don’t have to be at the Capitol everyday to be engaged,” Keegan said. “Just knowing the contact info for your congressmen or what policies are being discussed and knowing what you stand for, that is what really matters.”