Where do today’s teens go to learn about politics?  Perhaps all too often, news and social media are the first stop, which are not necessarily the most unbiased sources of information.  However, through the Rhode Island Model Legislature program, students are taught how to explore the social issues that matter to them most and create legislation to improve the world around them.

Since September, 12 Saint Raphael Academy students have been researching and writing bills about local and national issues, with the goal of improving the lives of others while learning what it takes to be a good representatives of the people.  The students may not be (current) Rhode Island elected officials, but their efforts as part of the Model Legislature program run by the state are perfect training for lives in public service.  Those bills will be presented before Model Legislature clubs from other high schools as they all gather for the 69th Model Legislature General Assembly on April 2 at the Rhode Island State House.

Some students will serve as legislators and present their bills, while others will act as assistant senators, lobbyists and pages to make sure bills pass.

The Rhode Island Model Legislature program was established in 1947 with the intention of “providing a hands-on experience in civic government for Rhode Island high school students,” according to their website.  Interest has declined over the years; at one time, nearly every high school in Rhode Island had a Model Legislature club.  This year, there are 11 high schools participating from across the state.

Louise Oliveira, state coordinator, hopes that students realize “that maintaining a democracy takes work and that as a citizen, one needs to be involved.  That means learning about the issues and alternatives; learning to see around the rhetoric and demand facts.  We want them to learn to view issues critically and make good decisions, not based on their own enlightened self-interest, but what is good for everyone.”

Social studies teacher Ken Kirejczyk, club moderator, first became involved with the Model Legislature program at Saint Raphael in 2009-2011, then student interest lapsed. It was something that he has always wanted to bring back at the Academy, and this year the opportunity presented itself, with the state coordinators making personal visits to schools and offering to waive the registration fees for the first 10 schools with the help of grant funding.

“My own concern was, will there be enough students interested in this?  And so far, these people [gesturing to a list of club members], I have say, they are interested. … They’re all great kids.” said Mr. Kirejczyk.

The club developed several Senate and House bills on their own in preparation for the legislative session. Some of the eight bills the team created include mandatory seat belts for school busses and breathalyzer tests for drivers, lowering the voting age for city and state elections, and establishing state-sponsored secondary education based on financial need.  All told, the high schools together produced more than 80 bills, which will be narrowed to a smaller list at the caucus and committee day in March.  Those bills will be then presented at the model legislative session in April.

Once students wrote the bill proposals, they had the opportunity to choose what positions they wanted to assume for the legislative session.  Club members decided among themselves who would be best suited for positions of senators, representatives, lobbyists or pages.  All of the participating schools’ club members were eligible to interview for one of about 30 leadership positions available.

After a rigorous interview process with the Model Legislature state coordinators, Saints junior David Coderre was selected as Liberal Whip, which is the “second-in-command” position to the Speaker of the House.  Taking on the Liberal Whip position required extra hours spent with the state coordinators and other student leaders, as they learned further about the legislative process.  At the caucus and committee meeting, David must talk with each representative about bills he wants to pass and keep track of how each person will vote on each bill.

“It is completely student centered.  These students who earned these leadership positions are the true leaders of this club and they are the ones running the whole thing,” said Mr. Kirejczyk.  “David, so far, has been doing a tremendous job.  He has taken a role as club leader in explaining different legislative procedures to our own club because he’s learning a lot of details from attending these leadership meetings.  I’m so glad that he got this position because he’s providing a lot of information and insight to our own club at Saint Rays.”

In addition, as the Liberal Whip, David must keep the Liberal party platform, supporting liberal points of view and continue to move those bills through and support those bills that represent the Liberal point of view.  “Being that I am a floor leader, I have to keep control of the floor and keep control of all business and keep it moving.  If the speaker or the majority leader is not there, I have to fill in for either of those positions,” David said.

“So my job is very large.  But it’s all in a day’s work, actually. Well, really, two days,” he said, referring to the caucus day and the legislative day.

David’s interest in public service was inspired by his grandmother, former House Representative Elaine Coderre, who served for nearly 30 years for the Rhode Island General Assembly.

Another influence is SRA’s Lasallian Youth.  As a result of his community service with them, David developed a particular interest in a bill that he is introducing, an act to increase funding for job development and training for the homeless.  The bill would provide funds for a 6-month training program led by certified instructors to teach job search and interview skills to the homeless.

Despite the extra work, David is enjoying it.  “You interact with other people who have the same beliefs as you with social justice, and you also try and help the community.”  He said that sometimes elected officials will take note of the model legislature bills and develop them further for actual proposed bills in the House and Senate.

David is not the only club member who will have a speaking role during the legislative session, and that can make some students uneasy, according to Mr. Kirejczyk.  Often, he finds their biggest fear is speaking out in public.  “They’re a little sheepish sometimes,” Mr. Kirejczyk said.  He tells them, “You don’t have to, but you certainly have the privilege [to speak], and if there’s something that you feel passionate about, you raise your hand, be recognized by the Senate President or the Speaker of the House, and you speak your mind, as long as you do it in a proper way.”

While the club largely consists of seniors, both Mr. Kirejczyk and David are hopeful for more interest from underclassmen next year.  David believes it is a chance for students to create solutions.  “If you have a problem with something, you can fix it.  If you find something wrong, you can fix it,” he said.

“This particular senior class is outspoken in a good way … and I’m glad that we had the opportunity to have a model legislature from Saint Rays,” said Mr. Kirejczyk, praising his “dream team.”  “I’m honored that this many people signed up for it and are actually interested in it … They’re bright kids, they’re good kids, and they’re not afraid to speak their minds.  I think they’re a good fit for this because they can be eloquent and professional in the way that they express themselves,” noting that many of the same students are in the Mock Trial club and already have experience in public speaking.

The SRA Model Legislature Club will participate in the 69th Model Legislature session on Saturday, April 2, from 8:15 to 1 pm.  Club members are David Coderre, Matt Carvalho, Randy Agudelo, Sydney Roberts, Grace Senra, Joe Tumidajski, Joe Gomes, Alyssa Fletcher, Alicia Drape, Ethan MacDonald, Dylan Martin, Dalaun Andrade.  Friends and family are invited to watch the proceedings.


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