Youth Engagement in Local Government


By: Diana Fay DZoglio – September, 2011


Diana Dizoglio
Diana Dizoglio

METHUEN – Has anyone spoken to our local high school students lately about the upcoming local elections?

I have, and am writing to express my deepest concern about the apparent lack of knowledge and understanding about local government amongst the future leaders of our communities.

In a recent event that I had the privilege of organizing, I quizzed about 40 local high school honor students with–what I assumed to be–basic questions about state and local government. The first question earned about a 50% hand raise. I asked, “Can anyone name 3 branches of state government?” Collectively they responded correctly. When I asked them, however, to name their state legislators and to describe their functions at the state house¬–no one could fully answer correctly. While these juniors and seniors knew the basic outline of state government, they seemed to have had no real comprehension of its purpose and function.

At the local level, I have personally spoken with dozens of local high school honors students who cannot accurately describe the roles of school committee members, city councilors and mayors. Some were able to regurgitate generalized statements such as, “The mayor is in charge of the city”, and, “The school committee makes all the decisions for the schools.” Unfortunately, however, even those students had no future plans to vote for local candidates and had no idea who was currently running.

When our students feel empowered to vote for the president, but fail to hit the ballot box for state and local elections, there is serious cause for concern. When the U.S. adopted the idea of mass education, the reasoning was that everyone entitled to an education should be obligated to acquire one. Mass education was basically founded on the belief that democracy and education don’t function without each other.

Thomas Jefferson was big on the idea of democracy and education being interlinked. Regarding mass education, he stated that the goal was to “create a system of schooling for social control.” The education system was supposed to be that which empowered citizens to comprehend the key issues of their communities so as to be able to better contribute to their safekeeping and development.

According to Methuen School Committee member Evan Chaisson, “Our early leaders were brought up with civics as the backbone of their education. We should continue this tradition no matter what the cost. Every child regardless of race, color and gender should have a deep sense of community activism and public service.

This starts at the local level. Municipalities and, more importantly, states should pick up this cost. This issue needs to be addressed and changes need to be thoughtfully considered. No cost is too high when it comes to educating our youth on civic duty.”

“Without a doubt, schools need to play a key role in educating our children on these matters”, said Methuen City Council candidate Sean Fountain. “Furthermore, I believe that a youth center could accommodate programs that contribute to a further comprehension of local and state government. A youth center could provide hands-on opportunities for public service and would physically give our kids a seat at the table. It all comes down to funding and people’s willingness to fight for it. I believe in offering youth every available resource to educate them on how to give back to their communities.”

The problem is not with the obviously smart and talented students who have earned high MCAS scores, landed college scholarships and received academic awards. Also, since they could answer questions based on what they had learned in class, I doubt it has to do with the teachers. When mandated curriculum leaves little time and space for teachers to emphasize the importance of local and state government, something’s got to give.