Sometimes there’s the assumption that today’s youngsters have little interest in learning about government and what the people entrusted to run it actually do.
However, an increasingly popular field trip for elementary and middle schools throughout Westchester may be changing that perception and helping to shape the next generation’s future leaders.
The Westchester Board of Legislators hosts field trips for students to participate in its Mock Legislature Program so they acquire a better understanding about county government. During the roughly three-and-a-half-hour visit to the county building in White Plains, each class spends time as a mock legislature by discussing issues that are pertinent to their lives in committees and creating proposed bills before going into the eighth-floor legislative chambers to vote on the measures they’ve drawn up.
County Legislator Margaret Cunzio (C-Mount Pleasant) said she believes the program is so important that since taking office on Jan. 1 she makes sure she’s on hand to greet every group of students from schools in her legislative district and answer questions. Schools from all 17 of Westchester’s legislative districts participate each school year.
Cunzio said the trip aligns with the state history curriculum for fifth-graders or the social studies curriculum for seventh-graders. The Valhalla School District makes the trip available for its elementary school students who are involved in student government, she said.
As a former teacher in the Byram Hills School District and now as an elected official, Cunzio said getting students excited about the legislative process and how ideas can become law is essential to help them become involved citizens as adults.
“I think it’s important to get the younger generation to understand government, and if you can inspire these students and spark an interest, maybe they would like to go into public service,” Cunzio said.
Byram Hills’ Wampus Elementary School’s fifth-graders made the trip through January and February, with each section visiting on a different day. Fifth-grade teacher Fran Poniatowski, the coordinator for the trips, said when the school began scheduling the visits about five years ago, not only were the students unaware about their county’s government but so was she, some of the other teachers and parent chaperones.
In the time since then, it’s been an eye-opener for the students and the adults.
“We look forward to it each year and the kids really enjoy it and they’re not bored,” Poniatowski said. “They bring their ideas and they’re really actively engaged.”
Some of the topics debated and formulated into mock legislation during the recent trips related to school uniforms, year-round schooling and whether junk food should be sold in school cafeterias, Poniatowski said. Issues were chosen that had relevance to students.
The highlight of the trip was taking the proposed legislation and debating and voting on it in the Board of Legislators’ chambers, Cunzio said. The students sat at the lawmakers’ desks, used the microphones when it was their turn to speak and formally addressed their classmates.
“It’s one thing to tell the students about it, but when they are there, they’ve experienced it and they have the information,” Cunzio said. “We send each student home with a certificate for their completion of their day as a legislator.”
She was most impressed by the students’ arguments on both sides of each issue and their ability to reach consensus.
“They really had information and facts that they brought to the table,” Cunzio added. “It’s also good that they understood in committee not everyone had to agree but it’s where you voice your opinion and you agree to a compromise.”