Last week, Southampton Councilwoman Julie Lofstad visited students at Ross Lower School. Taking the stage in the Multi-Purpose Room, Julie confessed that despite enduring two campaigns she is still a nervous public speaker. This reminder that they had feelings in common endeared her to the young audience of students in grades 1 to 6.
Julie entered local government shortly after leaving a career in aviation to be a stay-at-home mother and to support her family’s fishing business. Soon, she worked with community leaders and volunteers to gain support for, fund, and build a new playground in her area; subsequently, she remained deeply involved in community initiatives for the next 15 years. When she was asked to consider running for councilwoman, Julie—who was decidedly not a politician—realized that as a mother, resident, and business owner, she was well qualified to serve as a community advocate.
“Even though I could not talk well in front of others,” Julie shared, “I could still do good things for my neighborhood.” She used her experiences to encourage students to become active members of their community.
The councilwoman’s visit was organized as part of the Lower School’s civics curriculum, which was designed to coincide with this year’s election cycle.
“As a faculty, we were concerned with how our students were experiencing the present political discourse,” said Bryan Rosenberg, assistant head of the lower school and fifth grade teacher. “We met to figure out how to teach students about governance without engaging in conversations about candidates’ beliefs. Our solution was to base our conversation in the local government.”
Students in every grade level are focusing on civic duty and responsibility. Kindergarten students are beginning to recognize the functions of civic workers in their communities. First and second graders are exploring the structure of their communities and how elected officials pass laws and complete initiatives. In fifth and sixth grade, students are engaging in critically interpreting data, learning about sample sizes and representative populations through a unit on statistics and data visualization. They are also working to predict what a politician will support based on his or her past voting record.
“We’ve done a really good job in is removing our discussions at school from the realm of belief. It is our job to help students come to a better understanding of themselves in this world,” Bryan said. “Once you realize that you have the power to study the issues, party politics can start to disintegrate.”
This curriculum is building toward sixth grade student government elections, which have been designed to align with the upcoming presidential elections. Before casting their votes in early November, students will have the opportunity to hear candidates’ speeches. Once elected, officials will be divided into working committees, emulating local government.
Students will focus on service-based projects to demonstrate to students that a public servant’s duty is to others—a reinforcement of the Ross School motto, “Know thyself in order to serve.”
One way Julie said students could help was to participate in projects that help maintain the quality of the area’s water supply, something the students were proud to already be supporting. After a visit last year with Conscience Point Shellfish Hatchery’s Executive Director Josh Belury, in which he showed Lower School students in real time how oysters filter and purify water, the students committed to helping the organization grow the oyster population of our coast. The students even created and sold watercolor prints and donated the proceeds to Conscience Point.
In a question-and-answer session following Julie’s presentation, many students raised their arms enthusiastically when asked who would someday like to serve in government. Others were surprised to learn that she had been instrumental in building the parks and playgrounds they visit regularly.
Understanding the true impact of civic duty was the presentation’s ultimate takeaway. “Real public service has nothing to do with the show,” Bryan said. “It is all about helping people.”