The 2011 Civics Fair at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture on Dec. 9 gave Pittsburgh area students the chance to speak out on issues important to today’s youth. While some addressed traditional student concerns such as poor lunches and too much homework, others addressed greater issues such as the recent budget cuts in the Pittsburgh Public School District.

“Our issues is, the board of education is trying to cut our funding for school and cutting our funding for school is like cutting our future,” said Arthur King, a student from Pittsburgh Obama.

CIVICS FAIR—Front: Obama student Caleb Pridgen accepts first and third place awards on behalf of his school in the Youth Media Advocacy Project category with seconds place winners from Wilkinsburg High School. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

Obama was one of eleven schools competing in the Civics Fair organized by the Youth Media Advocacy Project, a collaboration between Carlow University and Greater Pittsburgh Student Voices, a civic engagement initiative for high school students and their teachers.

“It’s important because this is a training ground for becoming a citizen. The kids get to present their opinions to community leaders and they hear them. These projects, they’re not just for school; they’re for the community,” said Heather Harr, director of Student Voices. “I hope they’re empowered. A lot of these kids don’t come from communities of empowerment.”

Students competed in six categories including, op-eds, political speechmaking, political cartoons, voting rights history, community projects and youth media advocacy projects. Student groups from Obama received first and third place awards in the YMAP category, for their projects addressing education budget cuts, declining enrollment, homework, school food and other school improvements.

“We want smaller class sizes and we also want more electives such as cosmetology, mechanics and home (economics),” said student Aaron Miller.

“I like that I had the opportunity to help my school, to make it better and more enjoyable for everyone,” said LaTonya Tyler. “I also like that I had the opportunity to have my voice heard.”

The students’ ideas for how to promote their message included putting up billboards in Harrisburg, to reach state legislators, and Oakland, to reach the school board whose offices are located in this neighborhood. As one solution to the district’s budget problems they suggested using unused Pittsburgh Promise funding to balance the budget.

“They had a lot of complaints about the school and a lot of issues they were concerned about so this gave them a chance to have their voices heard.” Ikeya Norris, a senior at Carlow who advised one of the Obama groups. “A lot of times they don’t get the chances to speak out.”

Coming in second place in the YMAP category, which was one of the few where students had a chance to present their projects, was Wilkinsburg High School. Students from Wilkinsburg talked about the importance of technology and music in the classroom and even made a case for allowing students to listen to music players during free time in class.

Other schools included Career Connections Charter High School, Fox Chapel High School, Highlands High School, Moon Area High School, Pittsburgh Science & Technology, Pittsburgh University Prep, and Propel Andrew St. High School. Youngest among the students was a group of eighth graders from Pittsburgh Allegheny Traditional Academy Middle School.

“When I first heard about it, I knew it was only for high school students but I thought wow what a great way for our kids to have their voices be heard,” said Caryl Skinner, a student services assistant at Allegheny. “These kids, this is something they do after school, so it’s a great opportunity for them to grow and to prepare them for their civics class.”

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