While American youth are more politically engaged, according to a 2022 Harvard Youth Poll, they are less likely to believe that their vote or involvement will effect change. Half of those polled believe that politicians care more about the elite than about people like themselves.
How do we help youth feel more empowered to participate in politics when they feel that way? The answer could lie in a program in the Model Legislature program.
The Rhode Island Model Legislature marked its 76th year last Saturday. Saints sent a small delegation of three students who modeled Representatives in the House, continuing a long tradition of civic-minded students exploring an interest in politics and public service.
The Rhode Island Model Legislature is the oldest program of its kind in the U.S., says its website. The Rhode Island Council for the Social Studies organized and sponsored the event.
Students in the club at all the high schools research and write bills about local and national issues that would benefit the lives of others while learning what it takes to be good representatives of the people. These students may not be current Rhode Island elected officials, but their efforts as part of the Model Legislature program are the perfect training for lives in public service and other career areas a well.
New Team Learns the Ropes
The highlight of the academic year is attending the mock in-person session at the State House. Students learn about and draft bills that are debated at the session. Students may also try out for several leadership positions such as House Speaker, Chief Clerk and House Parliamentarian in the House of Representatives and President of the Senate, Chief Clerk and Senate Parliamentarian.
The three students, juniors Sharbel Mikhail and Calista Aguinaldo and sophomore Brendan Bauschard, were all new to the event. Their role as Representatives allowed them to learn and participate in the discussion if they wished. They were excited and represented SRA well.
“My favorite part about being a Representative is speaking on behalf of what I believe in and hearing what others have to say,” said Calista. “I was able to gain new perspectives and ideas from other students my age that I would have never thought of on my own. The passion that we all have for the legislative processes was clear, and meeting people with the same interests was wonderful.”
Another school’s moderator even complimented Sharbel on his well-spoken and professional manner. Sharbel gained some high-profile experience with public speaking as an SRA representative on a student panel at New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) in the fall. Club moderator and social studies teacher Ken Kirejczyk hopes that the now-veteran team will consider trying out for leadership positions next year.
Long Tradition at Saints
Saints has been fortunate to have several dedicated students in Model Legislature over the years. Andres Taborda ’11 and David Coderre ’17 were both elected as Speaker of the House. Andres now works in Washington as a public affairs professional, and David works for the Rhode Island Judiciary.
More recently, Vincent Emery ’22 participated all four years of high school and was the only SRA student who participated in 2022. He is currently an undergraduate at Bryant University studying management.
Perhaps the most famous graduate and member of Saints’ Model Legislature is Robert A. Weygand ’66, a former Rhode Island Lieutenant Governor and former U.S. Congressman, and a recent inductee of SRA’s Hall of Fame.
Pandemic Causes Setback in Interest
“Now that Sharbel, Calista and Brendan finally got a feel for what Model Legislature really is, they are excited about getting more Saints involved next year. Participation has been down from all schools over the last several years and even in this post-Covid world, many young people simple do not wish to get involved. All moderators are striving to try to generate some interest in this very valuable club once again,” said Mr. Kirejczyk.
Mr. Kirejczyk moderated Saint Raphael Academy’s Model Legislature club from 2009-2011, then student interest lapsed until 2015 when the club was revived. Participation increased, then dropped again by 2021.
Statewide, the pandemic made it difficult for schools to attract participants. 2020’s session barely finished before the state shut down and 2021’s session was entirely virtual. By 2022, most students were weary of anything virtual, and schools around Rhode Island experienced heavy loss in their clubs, including Saints. Only nine high schools participated in that year, the lowest ever, according to Mr. Kirejczyk.
Now, there are 12 active delegations (high schools) listed on the Model Legislature’s website. Saints was one of 11 high schools to participate in 2023. Mr. Kirejczyk is hoping that this year brings increased interest.
Attracting new members can be daunting—especially those who are nervous about public speaking. Mr. Kirejczyk tells students they do not have to present or argue in front of the delegation if they feel uncomfortable. Many participants listen and learn about the legislative process and are inspired to take on a larger role in subsequent years.
In the end, with a little luck and lots of encouragement, Model Legislature can be what is once was. Students from around the state will feel empowered to see themselves as the lawmakers and civil servants of the future.