American Youth Congress to be held April 4 at WCU

Middle- and high-school students will work with Western Carolina University students to write, introduce and debate legislation on Saturday, April 4, at the ninth annual American Youth Congress on WCU’s campus.

Approximately 250 students from Buncombe, Cherokee, Clay, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Rutherford, Swain and Transylvania counties plan to participate in the 2009 American Youth Congress.

The civic education event, which is funded by a $6,000 grant from the North Carolina Civic Education Consortium to two political science and public affairs professors, will expand this year to add committee debate, relocate to WCU’s campus, and pay stipends to participating teachers.

Chris Cooper, associate professor of political science, director of the master’s degree program in public affairs and director of the Public Policy Institute; and H. Gibbs Knotts, department head of WCU’s political science and public affairs department, applied for the grant to further the program’s student engagement efforts.

AYC asks students to work together with colleagues in their schools to write an original piece of legislation addressing a real-world need at the local, state or national level, said Cooper. The students then come together at AYC to debate the legislation in committee, lobby for their proposed piece of legislation, debate it on the floor and vote on their legislation.

“Started by PPI founder Gordon Mercer, this one-of-a-kind event brings the legislative process to life for North Carolina’s future leaders,” said Knotts. “Rather than reading about how a bill becomes a law, students actually help a bill become a law – working directly with every step of the legislation.”

Frank Wilson, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Hendersonville Middle School, said the program has been valuable to his students. “The American Youth Congress lets our students participate in the political process from the ground level, watching their ideas grow into proposals and form laws,” said Wilson, who has been involved with the event for six years. “My seventh-graders from last year – now eighth-graders – have a lot of enthusiasm for the American Youth Congress, and they can’t wait to be involved again this year.”

While AYC focuses on students in secondary education, WCU students also become involved with the program on a leadership level. A number of students from WCU will adopt different schools, helping their adopted school develop legislation that stands the best chance of getting passed, said Cooper.

“Although we refer to the legislation as ‘simulated,’ it is often much more than that,” said Cooper. “There are multiple instances of legislation from AYC being introduced to the North Carolina General Assembly, as well as in cities, towns and counties across the Tar Heel state.”

The program has four goals, said Knotts. “We want secondary education students to better understand the realities of the legislative process and be motivated to make a positive political change in their communities. We also want WCU students to work on real-world civic leadership skills and help tomorrow’s leaders have a real voice in our state’s politics,” he said.

For more information about the AYC or WCU’s Public Policy Institute, please call (828) 227-3861.