After a week at camp, the kids were supposed to come home more understanding, but they also returned as burgeoning political activists.
This is Camp Wananame, a weeklong program from the Pasco School District and Pathfinders in Bradenton, in which 40 teenagers, mostly strangers to one another at the outset, learned lessons in trust, team-building, tolerance and advocacy.
There was the camp bonding via singing, skits and shared meals, reflective time to talk about the lessons of the day, and trust-building exercises using obstacle and rope courses. About 200 Pasco County students have gone through the camp over the past four years in a program to train emerging youth leaders. The goal is to spread the word that discrimination and bias based on race, gender, sexual orientation or age is not cool. (A disclaimer here: the teenager in our household was one of the campers.)
Once school resumes, the students may become involved in organized activities like schools' annual Unity Day and volunteer community service. Or, the changes can be more personal. Someone might decide to excise offensive words from their own vocabulary and, in turn, ask their friends to do likewise.
"That's the whole idea,'' said Sherri Dunham, supervisor of student services for the Pasco School District, "to create more inclusive and just communities within the schools.''
After returning from Bradenton via the traditional yellow school bus last week, the students did what teens do. They texted. Posted wall messages on Facebook, Had sleepovers. Gathered at the movies and at Busch Gardens.
Amid the digital social networking, roller coasters and Harry Potter viewing, came a desire to put the advocacy to work. Except discrimination and bullying took a back seat temporarily and the teens became public policy advocates.
Specifically, they took aim at the 2010 federal budget and an administration proposal to eliminate pass-through grants to states for Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities. It is the pot of money that finances, among other things, Camp Wananame, school Unity Days, antidrug lessons and a diversion program called Tools that allows first-time student offenders to reduce school suspensions if they are apprehended with contraband on campus.
To the kids, messaging each other became a secondary consideration to messaging Congress via e-mails and faxes: Please restore the funding. Nationally, it is nearly $300 million. Pasco County received a grant for $215,000, of which the contract with Pathfinders for the camp and to conduct unity days at 18 Pasco schools accounted for $32,000.
The budget dilemma is not new. A year ago, the Bush administration proposed cutting nearly two-thirds of the funding. Congress not only restored the dollars, but approved a slight increase.
That hasn't happened this year. At least not yet. President Barack Obama proposed eliminating the $298 million in grants to the states in favor of national programming, some of which focuses on college-age students and communities with the highest demonstrated need. Such criteria would eliminate the Pasco School District and likely 90 percent of the districts across the country as recipients, according to the Washington-based Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America.
And before the partisan naysayers claim these are liberal feel-good lessons that distract from the core mission of public schools anyway, let's remember the mandate to provide safe and drug-free schools is part of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Without the dollars, educators will still need to provide anti-drug and anti-violence instruction. It's called an unfunded mandate and does not come at a particularly opportune time for Florida's financially stressed school districts.
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee approved the plan to zero out the state grants. The full House still must act. A U.S. Senate subcommittee is scheduled to consider the matter Monday.
Will the students' lobbying help? Hard to say, but it is worth noting that a year ago 110 Democrats from the House and Senate signed letters defending the state grants and even urged increasing the funding by $50 million. Among those supporting the increase were U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Charles E. Shumar and Hillary Clinton of New York. The zeal shouldn't change just because their party now controls the White House, too.
Teenagers schooled in tolerance shouldn't be asked to tolerate hypocrisy as well.