Seventh- and eighth-grade students from Robert M. Finley Middle School in Glen Cove headed to the Capital Region for the annual YMCA New York Youth and Government program Nov. 15-17. The students practiced for the conference, hosted by the New York YMCA, at the Holiday Inn Express Conference Center in Latham, N.Y. They put their practice into action during their debates at the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce in Albany.
The program serves as a Model State Legislature, at which hundreds of students from 58 schools around the state gather to debate significant legislative issues. The Finley students got the chance to use the state’s Assembly and Senate chambers in Albany for their discussions, acting as Assembly members and senators and writing and attempting to pass bills.
Four Finley students took part in the event when the district participated for the first time last November. In September, others were asked whether they wanted to attend, and the school invited 19 of those who expressed an interest.
Beginning in September, the students were split into groups of four or five in sessions before and after school led by teachers Jacklyn Burnett and Tracy Roberts. They discussed their proposed “legislation,” and continued working on it until they headed upstate. Along with Burnett and Roberts, special education teacher Adam Cirnigliaro chaperoned the students during their trip.
Two of the Finley students received special awards at the event, which were presented to only 10 of the 200 participants. Eighth-grader Elle Woska was named an Outstanding Debater, and seventh-grader Philip Dilgard-Clark, an Outstanding Delegate. Philip and his group proposed legislation aimed at stopping people from smoking within 20 to 25 feet of playgrounds.
According to Philip, the group’s inspiration came from the lack of smoking laws for playgrounds, as well as their own experiences with finding cigarette butts where children play. They decided that the 20- to 25-foot zone would suffice, reasoning that that would be far enough away for smoke to dissipate in the air before it reached a playground.
Philip said he found the trip enlightening. It helped him learn to consider ideas that may not otherwise have occurred to him.
“There were questions about how you would enforce this — how parents who smoke could watch their kids,” he said. “Those were interesting, because we hadn’t really thought of that.”
Philip’s mother, Carolyne Dilgard-Clark, said she considered the trip an invaluable experience. “As a parent, I think it’s an amazing out-of-the-classroom experience that exposes our children to diverse ideas and encourages them to engage in discourse about issues they think are important,” she said. “I think it’s great for critical thinking, listening and empathy. They’ve got to think big.”
The success of the trip and the students’ experiences in Albany were encouraging to Roberts, who said she believed it was an ideal way for students to learn about how state government works. “We hope that the students’ positive experience will help the program to continue,” she said. “We feel that the best way for students to learn our legislative process is to go through a legislative simulation. Students had the opportunity to take an active role with the writing and passing of their own legislation.”
Sheena Jacob, the Glen Cove School District’s social studies coordinator, was also in Albany on Nov. 16. She said she thought the trip was invaluable. She praised the students for their hard work, saying, “Congratulations on a job well done.”