Watertown-Mayer High School will be heavily represented this year in a statewide organization that was created to give youth a voice in Minnesota’s legislative process.
Sophomore Wyatt Tatge and junior Anna Phearman were both selected to be part of the Minnesota Youth Council this year, an organization designed to connect high school students with local and state policy makers. The aim is to allow young people to share their perspectives on issues that impact them with the governor and other legislators, thus giving them a chance to impact the political process despite typically being too young to vote.
“I’m really excited for it,” Phearman said. “It sounds like a really cool group that can make a difference.”
The students on the council identify and work to address issues that impact youth on a daily basis, frequently visiting the state Capitol to meet with legislators. The students’ role is to generate ideas and solutions by conducting research and gathering data to make informed suggestions. Throughout the process, students develop critical thinking, public speaking and leadership skills.
“If there is legislation that will have an impact on student education or other student issues, this council has to be given a voice,” said Watertown-Mayer Activities Director Mary Haugen, is who is serving as one of two adult sponsors from the high school.
Each student on the council is paired with an adult sponsor to serve as a mentor and make sure the students are prepared for meetings with some of the state’s top education officials or other lawmakers. Haugen was paired with Phearman, and social studies teacher Rod Janikula was paired with Tatge.
The Youth Council was formed in 2005, and includes 72 members — 36 students and their 36 adult sponsors. Each of the state’s eight congressional districts feature four appointed student members from within the district, as well as their sponsors. Phearman and Tatge represent the Minnesota’s sixth congressional district, along with a pair of students from Anoka.
In order to be appointed to the council, the students must first submit an application and then go through an interview process with the Minnesota Alliance with Youth, which oversees the council.
When Haugen first heard about the opportunity, Phearman and Tatge were on her short list of potential candidates for her to recommend apply for the positions. Haugen had recently seen them stand up at a Watertown-Mayer School Board meeting, urging the board to reconsider a decision not to renew a certain teacher’s contract. Haugen said that type of initiative showed her that these students would be good candidates to fight for student related issues in Minnesota.
“It just kind of struck me that if they’re willing to stand up at a board meeting and try to have a say in something, there aren’t many students I’ve seen around here do that,” Haugen said. “I think they’re both mature students, they like to learn and they’re not afraid to say what’s on their mind.”
As part of the council, Phearman and Tatge will meet several times with the state’s education commissioner and other officials from the Minnesota Department of Education. They’ll also work closely with state legislators, and will participate in a day at the Capitol. They also participate in monthly meetings that are held through video conferencing, and attend three retreats throughout the school year. They’ll each serve a two-year term.
Phearman, who will serve on the council’s education committee, said she was excited about the opportunity to be on the council, particularly the connections she can make with so many of the state’s top officials.
“Education is definitely a big thing for me,” Phearman said. “It really interests me, and so does government, so it’s kind of a perfect fit.”
Tatge will serve on the council’s policy making committee. That is a natural fit for him, because he is interested in a political science career related to government.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity to get to know other people and explore my interests,” Tatge said. “I think it’s a good opportunity because you get to meet with the legislators and talk to them, and you get a good feel for politics.”
Janikula, Tatge’s adult sponsor, said he thought Tatge would be perfect for his role on the council.
“I’ve never discussed politics with Wyatt, but I hear him outside my classroom all the time talking about politics,” Janikula said. “I felt maybe I could help guide him. He’s going to lead, but anything he has questions on, I can kind of be a sounding board more than anything else.”
The youth council last year focused on issues such as bullying, substance abuse and school safety, and those appear to be three of the top priorities for this year as well. The council as a whole decides which issues to address and focus on, but Haugen said it is then Phearman’s and Tatge’s responsibility to understand how schools throughout the sixth district are affected by policies in those areas, and represent those needs on the council.
Haugen said Phearman’s and Tatge’s role on the council will be especially important because as public school students, they’re actually in the minority on the council. While the majority of students in Minnesota are public school students, the Youth Council includes a disproportionate number of students from non-traditional schools, such as charter schools. Haugen said Phearman and Tatge need to keep in mind that as public school students they may be in the minority on the council, but they actually represent the vast majority of students in Minnesota, and they need to make sure that voice is heard.
Phearman sounded eager and ready to meet that challenge.
“It is definitely important that Wyatt and I speak up and represent the public schools, and especially rural public schools,” Phearman said.
Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]