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New Program at RHS Challenges Students to Improve Public Discourse

Teen LEADS, modeled off a Bergen County adult volunteer program, is a test run for what could be a county-wide initiative or local curriculum addition.

Mayor Paul Aronsohn speaking to Teen LEADS participants in the village hall courtroom Tuesday morning.
Mayor Paul Aronsohn speaking to Teen LEADS participants in the village hall courtroom Tuesday morning.
Mayor Paul Aronsohn had a challenge for 19 Ridgewood High School students Tuesday morning: spend the next eight months studying the level of civic participation in the community, and come back to village hall with a proposal to improve it.

The students spent the day meeting with Ridgewood and Bergen County officials, and until June, they’ll work on the issue as part of a new program that could be the model for others like it around the county.

Teen LEADS is modeled off Bergen LEADS, a ten-month program for adults to learn about public policy issues and work on special initiatives. The extracurricular high school program will meet monthly and take multiple policy-oriented field trips to prepare and present a project to the village council on June 4.

“It’s real world, experiential learning,” said Tom Gorman, the high school principal. “They will be talking to the actual people who are running the town and Bergen County. We’re trying to bring the textbooks alive.”

Aronsohn, who previously worked in the U.S. State Department, spoke to the students about the intersection of various levels of government, highlighting the more direct connection that residents have with their local representatives, and the importance of public participation at the voting booths and beyond.

“I’m here to represent 25,000 people in this town whether they like it or not, whether they voted or not,” he said. “It makes it easier if they’re involved.”

Conversation revolved around ways residents can reach out to officials to help address local problems, but Aronsohn said that the project is intended to explore all the areas of public life, activism and volunteerism, in addition to citizens' relationship to elected officials.

“I think generally speaking, as a county we don’t do a good job teaching people to be good citizens. Our democracy is only as good as the level and quality of our participation,” he said. “There’s different ways to be involved.”

In addition to Tuesday’s stint at the center of village government, the students will have three other days of fieldwork throughout the year, including a trip to the county courthouse and jail to talk public safety, and an outing to the Valley Hospital to delve into health policy.

Like their adult counterparts, the members of Teen LEADS, who went through an application process at the high school, have the opportunity to meet with top officials in the county, including the executive, prosecutor and sheriff.

“These kids will have access to some really knowledgeable leaders in the community,” said Roberta Sonenfeld, a Bergen LEADS alum and vice president of the Ridgewood Education Foundation who helped organize the teen program. “And that, I think, is really valuable to a high school student.”

“It could fill a gap in true civics lessons,” she added.

The program was a year in the making with the hope that, if all goes well, Ridgewood can serve as a “prototype” for other Bergen County high schools, or that Teen LEADS can eventually become a co-curricular program similar to the other special academic programs at RHS, Gorman said.

Gorman and Sonenfeld worked with Aronsohn and Bergen LEADS co-director Lynne Algrant, an Englewood councilwoman, to craft the challenge, and the intent is twofold: pushing teenagers to think about their participation in public issues while they craft a broader, real world initiative.

“What we wanted to get out of this program is kids, as they turn into adults, really thinking about how they’ll be involved in their communities,” Sonenfeld said. “This is concrete, and this is meaningful.”

“They’re going to be directly working on something hat can benefit their own town,” echoed Gorman. “The teacher is there to facilitate and guide them, but they’re in charge.”

jp1 October 23, 2013 at 08:44 AM
Maybe the students could ask the people of Ridgewood why they do not turn out for elections. I also think this is a great idea.
roberta sonenfeld October 23, 2013 at 09:00 AM
I am on the Board of two terrific organizations - the Ridgewood Education Foundation and the Volunteer Center of Bergen County - that I would like to commend for co-funding this innovative program for our High Schoolers. The leadership and enthusiasm of Principal Tom Gorman as well as Mayor Aronsohn also contributed to this successful first seminar. Also, Heather Mailander and her team did a terrific and professional job in engaging the students while imparting interesting and useful information about Village government. In response to jp1: the students will be looking at voter participation as part of the Mayor's' challenge and make recommendations as to how we can encourage better overall civic participation

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