'Legislative Semester' gives Marengo seniors hands-on experience in politics

MARENGO – Congress would be debating controversial social issues such as legalizing prostitution and marijuana instead of trying to avert the “fiscal cliff” if Marengo High School seniors were in control.

About 100 Marengo seniors this fall have been cultivating, debating and defending their own policy ideas in the “Legislative Semester,” a simulated legislature that gives students a hands-on civics lesson for an entire semester.

“They have a better understanding of where they stand on the political spectrum. They have a better understanding of what politics really is. It makes them more aware of the world around them,” said Todd Price, a Marengo social studies teacher who helps instruct the class.

Marengo High School started the Legislative Semester in fall 2011 and is one of only 10 schools in the country to require the senior-level class. The course is modeled on a West Chicago Community High School program, which now retired teacher Steve Arnold initiated in 1993.

Price and fellow social studies teachers R.J. Meyer and Bob Fecarotta praised the program for its ability to challenge and immerse students into the American political process.

The three, with the help of Superintendent Dan Bertrand, researched the course for nearly a year before implementing it in 2011.

On Thursday, they watched students debate bills about legalizing prostitution, allowing homosexuals to donate blood and increasing the penalty for sexual assault.

The school’s auditorium was transformed into a single-legislative chamber where an elected House Speaker presided over debate between students from the Democratic and Republican parties.

In this semester, the Democratic students held a strong, 70-seat majority, greatly outweighing 30 or so student Republicans.

Like any public policy, the students had to go through a tedious process to have their bill heard for a full floor debate. Some students failed to get their bills out of committee.

Meyer said students spend the first part of the semester learning about current issues and procedural rules that govern legislative chambers. They then do activities to identify where they fall on the political spectrum.

After declaring a party, the students form interest groups to study and advocate for particular issues. They write position papers, which helps them craft formal policy. Bills then have to pass through student-staffed committees before reaching the floor.

“We don’t tell them what party to join. We don’t tell them what bills to write,” Price said. “They select their own, write it, and essentially their peers become the ones who review and critique it.”

The students debate more bills Thursday to finish the Legislative Semester. The other half of the school’s senior class will start the “Fourth Legislative Semester” in spring.

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