July 09, 2024

Progress not perfection – Albany students seek solutions to problems that plague their community

Author: Molly Belmont
Source:  NYSUT Communications
Progress not perfection – Albany students seek solutions to problems that plague their community
Caption: Albany High School social studies teachers and APSTA members (left to right) Sean Fitzsimons, Jessie Lapolla, Peter Anderson and Amanda Weklar hosted the Civics & Public Engagement Showcase as part of the state’s relatively new Seal of Civics Readiness initiative.

At Albany High School students are using their voices to build a more perfect union — and demonstrate their proficiency in civics. Seniors in the school’s Civics and Public Engagement course presented their capstone projects, offering a new take on problems that plague their communities.

The capstone projects, which were displayed in the high school’s auditorium in June, represent the culmination of a year of study and research, during which students were asked to tackle one problem they felt passionate about.

“We’ve shown them what their powers are as citizens and how to use their voices to create change,” said Amanda Weklar, history teacher at the high school and a member of the Albany Public School Teachers Association. “We want them to know that when they go out into the world, if they need to make change on something, this is how they go about doing it.”

Participating students can earn a New York Seal of Civic Readiness, a new designation first established in 2021 and piloted during the 2022-23 school year. However, the shift in civics education from teaching rote memorization to nurturing activism began about 10 years ago at AHS, and Weklar said that every year since then, she and her colleagues, social studies teachers Peter Anderson, Jesse Lapolla, and Luke Quinn, have refined their approach to make the curriculum more responsive to student needs.

For example, this is the second year that students have been invited to share their projects with the public, but whereas last year, students presented from a podium to a room full of adults at an evening ceremony, this year, students got the opportunity to exhibit at the school and share their work with their fellow students and community members. “This allows people to interact one-on-one with the kids,” Weklar said. “I feel like it takes the pressure off, and it also encourages more engagement.”

During the event, 27 students showcased their projects, many of them engaged in spirited conversations about their findings.

Educators encouraged students to ground their project in issues they had personally experienced, and students took that charge seriously. Project topics included immigration and human rights, gun safety, redlining, mental health, policing, sex education, incarceration, and school violence.

“A vital story is the key to success. People don’t care about facts and statistics, they care about you,” said Lapolla.

The educator team also worked hard to dispel the idea that civic participation is for only some people or only about elections. “The power that we have isn’t limited to the second Tuesday in November. Democracy is a year-round sport, and it’s for everyone,” said Anderson. “We’re not giving them solutions. Instead, we’re asking them to find a path toward progress. That is what building a more perfect union is about.”

During their research, students received guidance from the Albany Branch of the NAACP, the People’s Perception Project, Freedom Unshackled and other civic groups on how to shift power and build allyships, said Weklar.

“The strength of this program is that it’s very collaborative,” said Sean Fitzsimons, social studies teacher and department chair. “It’s teachers thinking outside the box that allows this to happen, but it also takes a supportive and engaged community to bring it all together.”