Students test hands-on government

A summer class from Annapolis High receives opportunity to debate a curfew at mock hearing

July 27, 2008|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to the Sun

Members of the summer government class at Annapolis High School succumbed to public speaking jitters when they testified against a proposed curfew in Annapolis in front of several members of the city council.

Many testified in quiet voices, stared down at their notes and rushed through their statistics. But their words were clear: A late-night curfew for those under age 18 doesn't make sense.

The bad apples are going to flout the rules, just as they are doing now, said Garrett Green, who will begin his sophomore year this fall: "They're going to just keep on doing what they're doing."

The testimony in front of Mayor Ellen O. Moyer and five of the eight aldermen Thursday in a mock public hearing was the culmination of a new two-week, summer enrichment program designed to give rising sophomores a leg up on their American government class this fall. The social studies teachers at Annapolis High wanted to build on the Summer Bridge program, which prepares incoming freshmen for the leap from middle to high school, said Kim Jakovics, chairwoman of the social studies department.

Some of those Bridge graduates were invited to come back this year for the new class. The school also invited students from the English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program and students who have learning disabilities. Of the 70 students who were invited, 25 accepted.

The idea was to build the academic confidence of students by giving them a hands-on experience, Jakovics said. The program also builds students' relationships with teachers they will have in sophomore year. The hope is that these students will feel comfortable approaching them for help, Jakovics said.

During the first week of the program, students focused on the concepts of checks and balances and separation of powers of the federal government. They also learned about the differences between state and local government. Week two was spent on preparing testimony for the city council.

Discussion about imposing a citywide curfew began in March after a junior at Annapolis High was fatally shot late on a Sunday night at the Robinwood public housing complex. Kwame Travon Johnson was the second person to be fatally shot at the complex this year.

Last week, students researched other cities that enacted curfews to see how effective they were. They looked at Annapolis crime data and compared them to national crime statistics. Then they had to develop arguments for and against.

All but one student argued against the curfew. In council chambers, they mentioned research that most crime by youths occurs between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., the after-school mischief window before parents come home from work. They also referred to other studies that showed that curfews often helped divert minor crimes, such as vandalism, but did nothing to prevent violent crimes. Adults usually commit the latter.

Students asked for more after-school centers, similar to Annapolis High's new Panther Cafe, an after-school game room for students who commit to extra tutoring once a week.

Alderwoman Sheila M. Finlayson, a Democrat from Ward 4, said that the council has not taken action on the curfew because there are too many unanswered questions about how to implement one. For example, the city would have to decide what to do with teens who are picked up for curfew violations.

"I think the curfew is a good measure that we can use, but we have a lot of work that needs to be done," Finlayson said.

Kierra Creek was one of the few students who supported the curfew. She said it would make the streets safer. She had two suggestions: Start it at midnight, and set up a shelter where violators could stay until their parents picked them up

The city council members invited the students to sign up for a youth council that could help enact some of those proposals.

"One thing you need to understand is the power of your voice," said Tony Spencer, director of the mayor's Office of Youth and Community Affairs. "We do not think like young people. So don't think that this is just an exercise."

In addition to the mock hearing, the class visited the office of Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, and took a tour of the Capitol on July 17. Students borrowed digital cameras from the art department and took pictures of people or places associated with the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. The students also went to the Newseum to learn about the power of the Fourth Estate. Then they gathered their photos and made a mini-documentary using computer software.

The students in the summer government program deserve kudos for giving up two weeks of summer vacation to get ahead for next year, said Terry Poisson, social studies coordinator for the county school system. She helped make some of the arrangements for the class.

"For many students, that's not what their interest is over the summer," Poisson said.

Jakovics said she would like to try to offer the program to students next year. She said she hopes the program accomplished its goals.

"We want them to know how to access their government," Jakovics said. "We want them to walk away feeling strong and capable and empowered."

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