The summer session for Smithton, West, Oakland, Lange and Gentry middle schools began almost three weeks ago and with that beginning, came a huge project for the students to work on.
Marc Alexander teaches 8th grade at Smithton Middle School. Along with Heather Cole, assistant to the Columbia City Manager, Alexander came up with a program called 'Columbia Comes Alive!' to keep students engaged during the summer session.
At the beginning of the session, students divided up into groups to think of issues that affected their lives, such as homelessness, sewers, fast food, and many other topics. For three weeks, they worked in these teams to come up with solutions to these issues. While doing this, the teams made presentations covering aspects of the solutions to their topics, what the opposition might say, and remarks to that opposition. Along with this, the students presented data from research they found.
Ultimately the students were preparing to present to City of Columbia officials. The 8th graders and their teachers took a field trip to City Hall to talk to representatives from the police department, parks and recreation, department of health, among other local sectors of the Columbia government.
A popular topic Alexander saw among the students was crime. "This particular group of students really wants to talk to police about it and see if they take the matter seriously. What I have seen from prior presentations is that they do, in fact, take it seriously," he said.
These presentations are not just to benefit the students' grades. "It is one of the strategic goals of the City Manager's department is to collaborate with the Columbia Public School System," Cole said. Alexander added that if the city representatives see potential in the students' ideas, they will be asked to present before the city council, with the chance that their solutions could become a reality.
Overall the program is meant to teach middle school students about democracy. "These students need to see that they have a voice and know that their voice can be heard, and that there are people on the other end of the line that want to listen to them," Alexander said. "I think it matters when we put faces behind our government leaders, and they can say 'I know who I need to talk to'," he added.
So far, the feedback from the students, teachers, and representatives has been positive. Alexander and Cole say they are thinking about making this a yearly project.