Students with their mental health project (l to r): Daniela Camacho; Gabi Diaz; Willa Schifilliti/ Credit: Needham Observer

In 2018, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a requirement that high school civics education includes a student-led political advocacy project. For the past three years, the Needham High School history department has collaborated with the Needham League of Women Voters to provide students with access to advocacy strategies and resources about current issues in front of state and federal government. 

On June 8, the top floor of Town Hall was buzzing with enthusiasm from more than 100 high school juniors who had completed 50 projects advocating for a wide variety of public policy changes.

Stephen Plasko, chair of the history department, said involvement with local issues gives students a sense of how change happens. In contrast, he said, “A lot of the national issues just become quick soundbites without a plan for how you’re going to bring this to life.”

“The goal of the project is to help them understand that they can speak out to government about their views and communicate them,” said Carol Patey, president of the Needham League of Women Voters.

Plasko said students have to decide whether the issue needs a grassroots campaign to spread information or whether a lobbyist approach would be better. Most groups choose to advocate for legislation pending on Beacon Hill. 

Credit: League of Women Voters- Needham

More than a quarter of the projects focused on health care issues. “There was a lot on mental health and a lot of overlap with education,” said Plasko. 

“Last year, students said they wished they talked to more people who were relevant to their issues,” said Patey. To address that concern, the League recruited 45 community advisors who listened to student proposals and challenged them to defend their ideas. The community advisors included members of the Select Board, community advocacy groups, Town Meeting members, state Rep. Denise Garlick and Sen. Becca Rausch. 

Students crafted PowerPoint presentations, letters to legislators and newspapers, fact sheets and background narratives in support of legislation. They also honed their elevator speeches and were ready to support them with a longer dialogue. 

Patey said the presence of adult policymakers helps students polish their projects. “They have to be on.”

Junior Ella Tometsko advocated for the passage of Ollie’s Law, named for a labradoodle that died as a result of injuries sustained in a kennel in East Longmeadow. “We loved this project. We are pet lovers,” she said. “We’ve always been pet lovers, but this project really gave us the opportunity to look into this issue.”

Junior Lily Allen agreed. “I think this is a great project because it teaches you to advocate for issues that are really important and that you’re really passionate about.”

Plasko said the timing of the project works well because it coincides with the close of the state legislative session on June 30. “There will be a flurry of activity between now and then. Students will hear whether their bill makes it or not.”

From left Leah Dolaher, Lily Allen and Cameron Cooney talk about their project with State Rep. Denise Garlick/ Credit: Needham Observer

Several students focused on extending Mass Health benefits to disadvantaged populations. Cameron Cooney lobbied Rep. Garlick. “This bill starts with providing new health care benefits to immigrant children early on in their life,” she said. “Currently they don’t have access to benefits such as annual physicals, checkups or early detection.”

The students explained that Mass Health covers only emergency services. 

Garlick, formerly a nurse and a longtime advocate for health care legislation, said she was unaware of this gap in the state’s health care system. 

“The bill would extend benefits to 40,000 children,” said junior Lily Allen. “Preventative care is really good for the health of the economy and for the immigrant children themselves.”

After carefully listening to the student presentation, Garlick said, “I am more than willing to look into this.”

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