BERWYN – Lesly Lozano, 13, learned an important lesson in civic engagement and how young people can improve their communities as she and several students from Berwyn South School District 100 visited Springfield as part of the ninth annual Our American Voice summit May 2.
About 220 students and teachers from 16 schools in Illinois, including 83 students and eight teachers from District 100 schools, traveled to the state capital to meet with other students and legislators to discuss how small changes can make a positive difference.
“I learned that if you keep trying, you can achieve your goals,” the Freedom Middle School eighth-grader said. “I learned about what legislators go through to get a law passed. OAV shows you that you need to keep trying to achieve something. I learned how to better work with both children and adults. I know that it’s important to know our rights and responsibilities to become better citizens.”
Our American Voice is an extracurricular program developed by the Chicago-based Barat Education Foundation that is available at the six elementary and two middle schools in District 100. The after-school club educates children about government and civics, including how ordinary people can improve their communities.
Our American Voice members work on one community or school improvement project throughout the year. Some of this year’s projects from Berwyn’s eight Our American Voice clubs include a blanket and stuffed animal drive for sick children, a handicap-accessible playground at Komensky School, a handicap-accessible ramp for a school stage and a recycling program.
Students in Freedom Middle School’s club are working with Berwyn Arts and Music, Berwyn Public Works and the Freedom Art Club to paint a mural on the railroad overpass at 31st Street and Ridgeland Avenue. Sarah Gamradt, teacher and club sponsor at Freedom, said the group has been working on this project all year.
“They’re going to meet with the Public Works Department to finalize the sketches and get them approved,” she said. “It’s a long process, but it’s not only taught them to be dedicated to a cause, but also how to collaborate with adults and other students. The program helps students understand collaboration, teamwork and rigor. They work with local organizations and businesses and get to see the influence they have on a community.”
Hazelle Orellana, 14, is a member of Heritage Middle School’s Our American Voice club and attended the summit in Springfield. She said she loved the day and enjoys being a part of the group because the students are able to take the lead on the projects. Heritage’s project was holding two voter registration drives.
“We saw that a lot of Berwyn people weren’t registered to vote, so we did a registration drive at the school,” she said. “We got a lot of people registered at the first one before the presidential election, but not as many as the drive we held before the local elections.”
While in Springfield, students not only observed the State Senate during deliberations and met with legislators and Gov. Bruce Rauner, but they also were able to share their projects and ideas with other Our American Voice members from across the state. The students were divided into groups with kids from other clubs to discuss the issues affecting their schools and communities.
“This was a great opportunity for them to see that there are other young people involved in civic engagement in Illinois and share their successes and struggles with other students,” Gamradt said. “They were also able to tour the Capitol and question state legislators about working at both the community and state level. It was an excellent trip for our students to see the democratic process at work.”
District 100 is the only district that has all of its schools participating in the Our American Voice program. John Fontanetta, director of the program's civics education, described the district as the program’s “flagship,” and he hopes more districts in the state will follow its lead and enroll all of its schools.
“We have tremendous support from District 100 administrators, teachers and the community,” he said. “We provide an opportunity for students to be in an action group by identifying an issue that they’d like to see change. This program supports them in creating a project and bringing it to fruition. Civics isn’t being taught like it was 20 or 30 years ago, and students haven’t had an opportunity to be instructed on how to be an engaged and active citizen.”
District 100 has been involved with Our American Voice for four years. Superintendent Mary Havis said the district’s focus is helping students become more active in the community and make positive changes.
“I’m so proud and amazed at the level of engagement our students have with this program,” she said. “They’ve taken it on and made it their own with their ideas. The students are able to be creative, use critical thinking, collaborate with others and problem-solve. They’re able to be leaders, and the knowledge and skills they’re learning will allow them to continue to make a difference in their world as they grow up.”