'Civic Action' projects puts Ledyard sophomores on the path to changing policy

Mayor Michael Finkelstein, right, talks with Ledyard High School sophomores about their Civic Action Project ideas to improve the school or community during roundtable discussions in the school library Friday, April 1, 2016.  The students received feedback from school and community leaders on their projects and about the leaders experiences in their careers.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Mayor Michael Finkelstein, right, talks with Ledyard High School sophomores about their Civic Action Project ideas to improve the school or community during roundtable discussions in the school library Friday, April 1, 2016. The students received feedback from school and community leaders on their projects and about the leaders experiences in their careers. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Ledyard — It's a rare opportunity for anyone to chat face to face with his or her state representative about raising the minimum wage, or the police chief about putting body cameras on officers. 

Ledyard High School sophomores got the chance on Friday through the third annual "Civic Action" roundtable to get feedback on their ideas about changing policy — and learn what to do next.

The event is the culmination of the Civic Action Project, where students identify a policy in their community or school they want to change. 

In the weeks leading up to the roundtable, they find questions they want to answer and bring them to local leaders in the Ledyard High School library.

Sophomore Jennifer Watrous' idea was to bring education about sexual assault to high school students. She had been following U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal's efforts to enforce sexual assault laws on college campuses, and she thought the state's high schools would be a good place to start.

"If they're prepared, it could be less likely to happen," she said.

The process of the roundtable and asking questions of local leaders is as much about identifying pitfalls as it is about expanding their research, explained Humanities Department Chairwoman Ashley Hargus.

When speaking with state Sen. Cathy Osten, Watrous found that the state legislature does not want school mandates that do not identify a funding source.

After speaking with Board of Education Chairwoman Mimi Peck-Llewellyn, Watrous later decided that a community forum, much like the one conducted on heroin recently at the high school, might be effective in accomplishing her goal.

"I wanted to have more of an impact, but if I start at my high school, I'll have an impact," she said.

Afterward, the students conduct research about the problem, including gathering statistics and often conducting surveys.

"The end goal is they are giving a presentation: by no means does it mean they failed," Hargus said. "They have to explain the steps of the project, this is what they're aiming to change or amend, here's the research we conducted."

Community leaders included state Rep. John Scott, who represents Gales Ferry and Groton; state Sen. Cathy Osten, who represents Ledyard; Mayor Michael Finkelstein; members of the Town Council and Board of Education; and the Ledyard Police Department.

In previous years, students have worked on successful projects that ranged from cutting down on waste by bringing bottle-refilling water fountains to the high school, to a project that used Title IX to ensure the high school's softball field is properly maintained.

Sophomores Erika deAndrade and Katy Miller hope to bring a mandatory driving education course to the high school. Both are members of the tennis team and had trouble finding ways to get driving classes into their schedule, and got the idea from California's policy to mandate a driver's education course at schools.

"If it's on a weekend, if your parents work that time, you can't exactly get a ride to driver's ed," Miller said. "Things like that are difficult."

However, their conversations with Ledyard Chief of Police John Rich and members of the Board of Education put the stark reality of slim budgets and the school's liability into focus. They've got their sights set on trying to bring the instructional side to the school as an elective.

"I think the actual driving during school is not going to happen. (Rich) was like, 'I can't imagine the liabilities,'" Miller said.

n.lynch@theday.com

Board of Education member Michael Brawner, center, talks with Ledyard High School sophomores about their Civic Action Project ideas to improve the school or community during roundtable discussions in the school library Friday, April 1, 2016.  The students received feedback from school and community leaders on their projects and about the leaders experiences in their careers.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Board of Education member Michael Brawner, center, talks with Ledyard High School sophomores about their Civic Action Project ideas to improve the school or community during roundtable discussions in the school library Friday, April 1, 2016. The students received feedback from school and community leaders on their projects and about the leaders experiences in their careers. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Sophomore Cynthia Petersons, center, talks with Mayor Michael Finkelstein, left, about her Civic Action Project idea for improving the school or community during roundtable discussions in the school library Friday, April 1, 2016.  The students received feedback from school and community leaders on their projects and about the leaders experiences in their careers.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Sophomore Cynthia Petersons, center, talks with Mayor Michael Finkelstein, left, about her Civic Action Project idea for improving the school or community during roundtable discussions in the school library Friday, April 1, 2016. The students received feedback from school and community leaders on their projects and about the leaders experiences in their careers. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

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