Lesson in leadership: 8th graders learn democratic process

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Eagle River, AK They can't vote, and they're only in the 8th grade, but students at Gruening Middle School in Eagle River are getting some hands-on lessons in how democracy works.

11 social studies classes at the school are taking part in "Project Citizen", a national, non-partisan education program to teach young people how to participate in public policy decisions.

Student Grace Karpicke said "it helps us know that even if we're young, we can change or create a public policy." Calvin Daugherty said "even though we're young, we're only like 14, it's like...it just seems so massive. There's this big country and we can actually affect what's happening in it, like we can affect the lives of other people It's really cool to know that we can make a difference."

The students in each class identify community problems they'd like to research and help solve. Each class then picks a single topic, which isn't easy because their teacher, Kelsey Gerke, requires them to hold a two-third super-majority vote. "Lots of debate, lots of 'hey you should do this...that's not workable...that's not something that we could have happen...or that's too much money' " Gerke said.

One of her classes picked Anchorage's homeless problem as their topic, and the students decided to suggest that the Anchorage Assembly change city zoning rules to allow so-called "tiny homes".

Students Senneca Slocombe and Mia Green addressed the assembly Tuesday night to present the ideas from their class. "I was a bit nervous at first" Green said, "but after I told myself there's really no reason, it's not like they're gonna jump out of their seats and be like 'YOU'RE WRONG!'. So, after I told myself there's not reason to be nervous it kinda went away."

Their teacher hopes the lessons they're learning now will help them later in life. Kelsey Gerke said "my hope is that as adults they carry that with them and remember the experience, so if they are an adult they know that they could go down and testify or write a letter and that their voice can be heard."

Students from Gruening Middle and other Alaska schools participating in 'Project Citizen' will take part in a state-wide competition at U.A.F on April 21st. The winning entry will represent Alaska in a national competition this summer.

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