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Future leaders see government firsthand during Tallahassee visit

In the past two weeks, student council meetings at Tarpon Springs Middle have changed. The 11 representatives are more businesslike, better mannered and have come to have a deeper respect for other council members' opinions.

Why the change?

Student council adviser Kristin Hill says it was a trip to Tallahassee and a crash course in government taught by elected officials that made the difference.

"Since they've come back, there is more mature communication between them," Hill said.

Council members spent three days of their spring break visiting Tallahassee. They hiked up and down the stairs of the Capitol with Pinellas County School Board member Susan Latvala as their guide. They sat in on a Senate ethics committee meeting, witnessed the passing of an amendment and conversed with Secretary of State Sandra Mortham, Education Commissioner Frank Brogan and Sen. Jack Latvala.

A side trip to Florida State University and lunch at the University Club were an added bonus. And, to make the students feel welcome in the capital city, the Latvalas invited the them to their home for supper.

For Lauren Weber, 12, meeting Sandra Mortham was a high point.

"It was neat to meet someone in such a high office, especially a female," she said. "The whole experience was kind of practice for me. I'd like to be become a government official. First an education commissioner, then secretary of state, governor and then president."

Marsa Musha, 13, took advantage of the opportunity to ask Brogan why students had to take so many tests.

"He explained why they were important, but I still don't like taking them," Marsa said.

What was most impressive to all the council members was the way business was conducted during the ethics committee meeting.

"They really listened to each other's opinions, they were relaxed and acted like they were with friends," Marsa said.

The Tallahassee visit was not only the first for the middle school, but for 10 of the 11 council members. It also was the inaugural trip of the city's new 15-passenger Cops and Kids program van, which was driven by Tarpon Springs police Chief Mark LeCouris.

"This was such a great experience for these kids," LeCouris said. "There are a lot of things from this trip that they will be able to draw on later in life. I think one of the biggest things was that they saw these are real people who are running our state."

Susan Latvala said she was impressed that Linda Benware, principal at Tarpon Springs Middle, made the effort to give her students the chance to see government in process. "I thought it was a wonderful move on her part," she said. "You don't usually see that age group in Tallahassee. They are the leaders in their school, of course they need to understand how state government works. What they do in school is related to what goes on in Tallahassee.

"I was very, very proud as a School Board member to have them represent Pinellas County. I felt they really got something out of it. We'll hear about these kids in the future. They're cool, well-balanced young people."