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Columbia County teens get window into local, state government through UW-Extension program
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Columbia County teens get window into local, state government through UW-Extension program

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A Columbia County program is giving high schoolers a window into local and state government and testing their public policy knowledge by having them develop plans for the fictional “FLAG City.”

Junior Hannah Dahl, Columbus, said she’s enjoying the Future Leaders Active in Government program and how it has allowed her and other students to make connections with community leaders.

“If you have an issue that you’re very passionate about, you’re able to put that forth and actually trust that something can be done about it,” Dahl said.

Funded by the Columbia County Board of Supervisors, FLAG is coordinated by the county’s University of Wisconsin-Extension, said Kathleen Haas, UW-Extension community development educator. The annual eight-session leadership program started in 2009.

“The idea of FLAG is to look at how youth can play a role in government and how government provides public services or goods,” Haas said.

Nominated by their peers, teachers or themselves, the 28 participating students from seven school districts kicked off the program in October. After brainstorming issues that matter to them, they divided into teams and chose one of the issues, Haas said. They interviewed staff members from public agencies and elected officials on their issue.

On Wednesday, students played the role of developers. They had to design a facility for FLAG City that addressed their particular public issue, considering everything from zoning districts and infrastructure to partnerships with other agencies. Each one also needed to include an element that benefits the overall community, such as a park or trail.

Dahl collaborated with seniors Quinn Altman, Columbus, and Chad Tiffany, Poynette, to design a college campus with a public amphitheater, arts center and a community playground. Their issue was post-secondary education options.

Tiffany, now a coach as a second-year participant, said their project demonstrates that “there’s more to education than sitting in a classroom and listening to somebody talk.”

He said he found FLAG to be a “big eye-opener,” despite having always been interested in politics and current events.

“Being able to see it first hand, it just amazes me how much goes into government. It’s a lot more than what people would expect,” Tiffany said.

Potage juniors Levi Wood and Alex Rietmann tackled public school safety, designing a law enforcement facility that includes a “mock school” intended to provide a training space for officers and allow for public safety and training demonstrations.

“It’s pretty interesting,” Rietmann said of FLAG. “We’re learning a lot about government and how it works in everyday life and what we can do to influence it through our views.”

Each team presented their development plans Wednesday to a mock planning commission, played by county supervisors, zoning staff and other public professionals, according to Haas.

Supervisor Nancy Long, who represents Lodi, noted that school safety has been a recurring concern she’s heard from FLAG students. Encouraging them to engage with government is an important part of the program, she said, but it’s also “good for us.”

“We get to have a conversation with them about what they’re concerned about, so I think that’s a very important thing to do,” she said.

Representing an area including Columbus, Supervisor Henry St. Maurice said he always learns something from talking to students. He cited his background as a retired educator as to why he got involved with FLAG.

“It’s great,” he said of the program’s impact. “Students come away impressed with what they didn’t know, and they know a lot when they’re done. … It’s just really well-planned. It’s not just talking heads; they do a lot of hands-on, engaged things.”

In February, students will travel to Madison to meet with their state legislator and the Wisconsin Counties Association, Haas said. Students will present their public issue “journey” to the community at an open house March 11 at the Columbia County Law Enforcement Center in Portage.

Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.

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