PUTNEY >> In lieu of a student government, Putney Central School offers leadership opportunities to its middle-school students (grades six, seven, and eight) by means of an assets council. Members of the council choose the name. The most recent group called the council Voice4Change.
The council builds on the developmental assets work which consultant Diana Wahle has been doing in the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union for several years.
"Kids feel a sense of empowerment having a voice in the school," said Herve Pelletier, PCS principal. "It's all part of having a positive school culture. The council members serve as liaisons between Voice4Change and the middle school advisories."
Students on the council complete a two-day summer workshop conducted at the School for International Training by Dr. Kenneth Williams, with smaller sessions during the semester, in which they learn about diversity, tolerance, bullying and harassment, and how to be active by-standers, Pelletier said.
Each spring, council members take a trip to Montpelier to learn about state government. Students self-fund the trip, Pelletier said, by holding a burrito sale every fall during the West Hill cyclo-cross races. The sale raises about $1,000.
"Ideally, we coordinate our trip with Rep. Mike Mrowicki," Pelletier said. "He meets us at the statehouse, and the students get a personalized, insiders' tour. Here in Vermont, unlike anywhere else, they can walk right into the statehouse, the people's house. Mike talks about how things work. The kids know him, and he takes us where the regular tours don't go.
"Students learn about civic engagement," Pelletier continued. "They see what's possible for them as young adults. They get a flavor of how democracy works and learn how to participate in it. Mike brings the eighth grade pages over, and some of our students become interested in applying to be a page."
On the tour, students have the chance to observe the House if it's in session, or sit in the seats of the representatives, if it's not, Pelletier continued. This year they visited the Education Committee room and saw a whole laundry list of bills up for consideration in committee. One that caught their attention was a bill to increase the mandatory attendance age for school from 16 to 18 years.
Students hear about the system of checks and balances, and about "the land of compromise," Pelletier said. "One lesson they take away is that you can't always get everything you want, but with hard work and luck and compromise, you will get what you need. They see that even though there may be stark differences of opinion about critical issues, compromise is a mechanism that allows people to work through those differences."
Usually, students attend a mid-morning session in the Vermont Supreme Court.
"Current law school students or recent graduates conduct a mock trial of an actual case," Pelletier said. "The kids divide up and sit in the justices' seats. They hear both sides and have to make a decision. Then they have processing time later with the attorneys."
In years past, the group has had a 10-minute audience with the governor although that didn't happen this year, Pelletier said. The students did meet with Phil Scott, the lieutenant governor.
"They talked about his position as lieutenant governor and about a 1941 Indian motorcycle he had just purchased," Pelletier said. "He's an avid motorcyclist."
The trip usually includes lunch in the statehouse cafeteria with the Speaker of the House, and a visit to the Vermont History Museum, which is right next door to the Capitol.
Students have to apply to be part of the council, Pelletier said. Fifth graders put together an application for which they have to write a short persuasive essay in response to the prompt: "What would you like to accomplish as a member of Voice4Change?" Then new members attend the last one or two meetings in the spring of the council. They are also recruited for the summer institute.
Lynne Borofsky and Hillary Keach are adult co-facilitators of the council group.
"We see our role as supporting and guiding the students to become leaders themselves," Borofsky said. "As we go through the year, they take on more and more responsibility."
Some of the members of Voice4Change talked in May about the trip to Montpelier and about the group.
"I'd been to the state house before as a third-grader," said Maddy Martel, a sixth grader. "It was fun to go again. I understood a lot more about why we need a statehouse."
"I went with the group last year," said Iva Armour-Jones, a seventh grader. "There's a large chandelier in the House of Representatives. I hadn't noticed it before. It has statues of people on it. It represents slavery and that it does not happen again."
"It was cool how big (the statehouse) was, and how many rooms it has," said Josie Dahir, a sixth grader. "We learned how long some of the meetings take, eight hours. They can go into the night."
"I enjoyed learning more about the page program and about someone our age being able to work at the statehouse," said Lauren Stockwell, a seventh grader.
Rowan Lynch, a seventh grader, was especially interested in the technology systems.
"They have multiple firewalls," he said. "The system is secured by Google itself, not a private company."
"We're a group of middle school students who help improve the school environment," said Ledlie Laughlin, a seventh grader. "We raise money for projects, we help to organize Mix-It Up Day, which is a big event here at PCS where kids get to know each other, and we have games and foods from around the world."
"The school is so small," Armour-Jones said, "it benefits the group if you can collaborate. You learn leadership skills and have a say in what happens. Everyone has a voice. A group is much more powerful. It's a great way to start change."
Nancy A. Olson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.