Young leaders making important decisions

Ayden Freschette called the meeting to order at 7:50 a.m. with all the gravitas befitting a council president.

The seriousness belied the fact that the council was meeting in a room with giant stuffed frogs lounging in chairs and colorful Hello Kitty backpacks stuffed under tables. The council president himself is a fifth-grader.

Oakdale Elementary School's student leadership council has attracted 20-something students in grades three, four and five, all of whom voluntarily come to school early to plan events for fellow students and the community.

The group operates with a professionalism rarely seen in 9 year olds: They have a constitution, follow Robert's Rules of Order and have in-depth discussions in committee meetings.

"Kids are amazing when they're allowed to have a forum where they can put their own ideas together," said Mark Johnson, supervisor of special education for the Montville School District and former Oakdale Elementary School principal.

Johnson said he started the student leadership council six to eight years ago and said he's seen the kids do a number of impressive things over the years. They've asked the governor to support a grant that would help Montville youth, researched youth homelessness and recorded Montville senior citizens talking about their lives.

And, said Johnson, it really is the students who are running the council.

"I sit back and watch them work, and I understand - this is theirs," he said.

Jill Mazzalupo, who took over for Johnson as Oakdale Elementary principal in October, agreed, saying the students "kind of take over" when she tries to jump in to help.

Secretary Emma Caskey, 9, proposed at this month's student leadership council meeting that the group do a fundraiser to support the Wounded Warrior project, which she heard about during a commercial while watching television.

The council broke into small groups to discuss Caskey's proposal, which left grade-schoolers pondering serious issues like war and finances.

At a table of mostly third graders, one boy listened to his classmates for a few minutes before posing a question: "I have a disagreement," he said politely. "We don't have any wars going on right now, do we?"

The third-grade consensus, reached after several minutes of discussion, was that yes, there was a war, and possibly two wars, though the enemy was undetermined. Although hazy on the details, the table supported the project to help pay soldiers' medical bills.

When the regular council meeting resumed, fourth-grader Nora Richmond pointed out that medical bills are expensive and suggested that the council hold a fundraiser that was two or three weeks long to maximize the amount of money raised.

Other items on this month's agenda included a fundraiser to help provide hats to people with cancer, putting together a care package for soldiers and organizing the "magical reading kingdom," an event held by the council for incoming kindergarteners.

Johnson said he has been impressed by how independently the children work and has encouraged them to apply the leadership skills they learn through the council after leaving Oakdale Elementary, both in formal positions and in day-to-day life.

"It makes you feel comfortable as you age that you have these kids to take care of you," said Johnson.



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