North Salem Students Advocate for Big Changes with Small Steps
This fall, North Salem High School seniors dedicated 10 weeks to developing civics projects to enrich their school community. From campus recycling procedures to driver safety, feminine product availability, and vaping dangers, the students addressed the problems they saw in front of them.
Last year, North Salem was one of five Westchester school districts selected for New York State’s Civic Seal of Readiness pilot program. To earn the award for their diploma, students demonstrate their readiness to make a positive difference in their communities. Now in the program’s second year, the students focused on making a difference inside the school building.
“It’s community service for the school,” said senior Amanda. Inspired by a diversity, equity, and inclusion program last year, she worked to improve student camaraderie by bringing together students from different grades.
“We had the kids tell each other who they are, what’s important to them, what they like to do. We formed connections with them, finding common interests between freshmen and seniors. It brought everyone in the room closer,” said Amanda. “It’s about having an open discussion with students so that we can be more empathetic and respectful of others if we understand each other.”
During the course of the projects, the students identified problems, collaborated as teams, researched causes and solutions and developed strategies. Finally, they took informed action by meeting with decision-makers and engaging classmates.
Two friends were concerned about the worldwide disappearance of pollinating insects. They researched which plants support bees and butterflies, identified potential garden spaces around the school building, and gained permission to plant milkweed and other flowers in the spring.
Another group focused on implementing mental health days as an excused absence in the school attendance policy. The students met with Vice Principal Dr. Kate Murphy for approval to present their proposal to the district’s Mental Health Awareness Team.
“It would benefit students by allowing them to express the reason they can’t come to school without shame,” said senior Marko. “North Salem administration is known to push for making students’ lives better, especially student mental health, and this would enforce their agenda of putting their students first.”
As they left Murphy’s office with her approval to move ahead, the seniors exchanged high-fives while Marko said, “I didn’t believe we would get this far. I’m shocked.”
His team is committed to continuing the project after the students’ final presentation. “We’ve got to continue this after civics class is done, we’re in too deep,” said Marko.
Another group attempted to provide stress balls to all classrooms to provide stress relief. They tried multiple donor avenues, like mental health clinics and therapists, but were unsuccessful in securing contributions.
“We can still make this happen,” said Joseph, a senior. He hopes to reach this goal in time for the spring Mental Health and Wellness Fair.
“I was very proud of them. They met resistance from one source but went out and tried something different,” said Chris Regan, who teaches the Government and Economics class with Alison Vara. “Someone telling you ‘no’ doesn’t mean your project ends, you just need to find a different door. That’s the heart of the project.”
“It’s been empowering to talk to the people in charge, have our voices heard and make an impact as a high schooler,” said senior Brett, who led a team to donate older computers for reuse. Brett had a head start on his civics project; he first attempted it in seventh grade after seeing a stack of outdated school laptops. “There are other school districts with children in need, and a four-year-old laptop makes a big difference to them.”
“We don’t just want to know it can happen, we want to make it happen,” says Brett, who has been meeting with global shipping companies and school districts to learn about navigating logistics and bureaucracy.
“It’s a civics project, but it’s about trying to bring about change,” said Regan. “We may not see the fruits of this project while the students are still in high school. In 10 years, they could come across a concern and then look back on this step-by-step approach to find a solution.”
Sarah Divi is the Communications Specialist for the North Salem Central School District. This article is part of an ongoing series of stories that showcase student experiences and exemplify the district's mission statement in action.