Students from 15 high schools in Schuylkill and Northern Berks Counties had the chance to learn state government first-hand by stepping into the role of a state senator for Senator David Argall’s Senator for a Day event, held at Penn State Schuylkill in Schuylkill Haven.
“In the morning, they vote on issues in committee, and then after the [lunch] break, all of them will gather together, and they will decide which bills they're going to vote, and which bills they're going to kill,” said Argall. “The interesting thing is, you never really know what they’re going to do. They always like to surprise me.”
More than 100 students from schools as far as Shenandoah and Tri-Valley attended the event, nearly filling the auditorium at Penn State Schuylkill’s community center.
Students were split into several committees, including finance, transportation and education, and were given pre-written mock-bills to discuss, amend, and vote on before bringing them to the general session in the afternoon. Such bills pertained to issues such as school property taxes, age limits for social media, among others.
Fleetwood senior Isabella Ouellette, part of the education committee, chose to introduce her own bill, regarding active shooter drills in schools.
A brief description of the bill, introduced in general session, read, “In response to the current climate of our society, this bill will create a mandate of 8 active shooter drills and 2 fire drills per year.”
Ouellette said the idea came from a similar bill was discussed at another Senator for a Day event, held by Sen. Judy Schwank, and from an assembly/event held at the school.
“I’ve talked a lot about this issue,” said Ouellette. She added that the school does hold active shooter drills.
Ed Carr, social studies teacher at Fleetwood, agreed with the basis for Ouellette’s bill.
“They’re just as important as fire drills. We have building codes that have made buildings so much safer that if we did do five-and-five or something, I think schools would be much better off,” said Carr. “I think Izzy did a great job presenting it and stating her case and representing what her principles are.”
Carr brought a group of four Fleetwood students to the event, including Ouellette, highlighting the first-hand experience the event provides.
“They can put things they learn in the textbook into practice,” said Carr. “It also gives them the opportunity to network. They spend all their time in one school with the same group of kids, and now they get to go out here with kids from Schuylkill County, a couple schools from Berks County, and be able to be around other people who have the same type of interests, same perspective, but also get a different point of view on things as well.”
Three Berks schools were represented at the event: Fleetwood, Hamburg and Tulpehocken.
“I have my [advanced placement] government class here, and they are really enhancing their curriculum right now, learning what senators do on a day-to-day basis,” said Michael Minnich, social studies teacher at Tulpehocken. “It’s been a good day. The kids tell me they learned a lot today working with other students.
Clark Zimmerman, the social studies department head at Hamburg, brought nine students from his AP classes as well.
“We’ve been doing this program for about ten years, and my students find it more interesting if they can actually be involved in a process,” said Zimmerman. “This [event] takes the class book and makes it real. I think anybody would prefer having an experience rather than just reading about it.”
“Life experiences are so much better than sitting in a classroom,” Zimmerman added.
Gabriel Fitser, a junior at Hamburg, said the event was “very interesting.”
“I actually was surprised with how much I didn’t know about the legislative process,” said Fitser. “Taking part in the committee meetings, it was very frustrating to even get one motion passed. I never understood that it was that difficult to get anything passed.”
Cassidy Vees, a senior at Fleetwood, also said some aspects of the event were frustrating, but it was also fun.
“It’s really fun to get to learn what it is really like to be involved in our government and politics,” said Vees. “It gets frustrating sometimes, especially when you really disagree with someone, but it’s really fun to debate and figure things out."