This spring, students from Normal Community High School will sit in the seats of senators.
The opportunity is offered through Youth and Government, an immersive program sponsored by the Bloomington-Normal YMCA where students “get to be the government,” explained program leader Sarah Tunall. It's like Model UN, but for a state legislature.
But before they can take over the capitol, students prepare throughout the school year, researching topics, writing legislation, and presenting their work at two competitive conferences.
“It's a really cool opportunity of learning about government, learning about civility, learning how our society and system work and how it should work, if it was working how it's written down,” said Tunall.
Earlier this month, nine of Normal Community’s Youth and Government members participated alongside 300 students from other schools for a chance to get their bill sent to the floor of the Illinois Senate in the spring. The General Assembly in Springfield is where the final competition takes place in the spring.
“It is very competitive. But it's also a lot of fun because you get to see the ideas that everyone has and how amazing they are ... and how much everyone really values of your opinion,” said NCHS junior Oliva Bushue.
Bushue and her club members spend every other Tuesday afternoon working together to refine their bills. They're dealing with serious policy, like placing restrictions on hormonal replacement therapy, utilizing alternative materials to improve Illinois’ infrastructure, and implementing instruction for foster care children who age out of the system.
“I have an interest in trying to better the lives of others, and when I found out there was a club where I could do that in my community, while also learning about the way the government works, I thought it’d be very beneficial to join,” said NCHS sophomore Sam Haggarty.
Normal Community is the first Bloomington-Normal school to pilot the program. Students must pay a fee in order to participate, and the YMCA provides financial aid for those who qualify. As Tunall plans to grow the program, tuition is one thing she hopes to improve.
“We definitely are looking for people who are excited about this program, who have a desire to invest in students financially because we stay in a hotel for two nights and we spend the entire weekend eating and doing the conference. So it costs a lot of money. We do have financial resources, but we're always looking for more people to be involved in this program,” said Tunall.
Tunall said she loves working with her students.
“I keep saying it's been fun to watch because they're doing it themselves. They're growing each other. They are the ones who are teaching each other in a big way,” said Tunall.
Also supervising the group is former NCHS student Hunter Watts. As a member of capital forum and the social studies club in high school, Watts found his passion for government and politics early on. Today he teaches social studies at NCHS.
“The cool thing that Hunter and I get to do is walk with students as they start to research and explore their own political and ideological perspectives,” said Tunall.
“My favorite part is watching them go from maybe being nervous to engage with other people to being able to have a really civic discussion about whatever topic that approaches them,” said Watts.
While Youth and Government members spend hours learning the ins and outs of their bills and proposals, their mentors learn a great deal too.
“I think for me it’s watching students grow, watching them engage, and watching them learn how to have a conversation. And then in myself learning what it means to be a person who can stop and let others speak their opinion. And I learned that through our students ... The reality is, I'm learning a lot. And that's been pretty cool, too,” said Tunall.
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