WALLA WALLA -- A team of Walla Walla High School students got a first-hand lesson on the state Legislature during a recent trip to Olympia. The 12 students, all members of the school's Latino Club, are also part of the TRiO/Educational Talent Search program at Walla Walla Community College.
The program is a federal initiative that offers support to promising students to finish high school and go on to college.
Abigail Muro, director of the local TRiO/ETS program, said the students had the chance to attend the 2010 LEAP Education Conference and Legislative Day in Olympia in February. LEAP stands for the state's Latino/a Educational Achievement Project. During the conference, the teens learned about pending state proposals that related to them, and the bills' uncertain chances of becoming law.
As part of the trip, the students seized on the opportunity to make arguments in committee for a particular bill that they felt passionate about. Two teens spoke in support of Senate Bill 6778, which would have established an alternative route for students to earn a high school diploma. The alternatives could have included fewer graduation requirements as long as students maintained a high grade-point average. The Wa-Hi students were particularly interested in the proposal not making it a requirement to pass the state's standardized exams.
The students said they felt empowered by the opportunity to speak for or against a proposal that had the potential to impact students for years.
Nancy Lopez, 16, was one of the students who voiced her support for the proposed legislation.
"I totally was for it because I understand some students have so much to do, sometimes they struggle with school," she said. "If it passes it would really help those who think they might just give up."
Lopez and her classmates agreed that the alternative path should only apply to certain students, like those who have shown academic integrity, but have demands like work or families to support that have kept them from meeting other graduation requirements.
Most of the students agreed that the state's requirements for graduating from high school are challenging, and might be too much for certain students.
Rubi Villegas, 17, pointed out that the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, the state's recently replaced high school proficiency exam, was extremely rigorous.
"In other states they don't have the same test," she said.
Lopez said the bill as she understood it would help curb the state's high dropout rate.
"Mostly it's just a way of getting hope again, when you think all is lost," she said.
Not all students agreed the bill was a good idea. Roger Contreras, 16, was vocal among his classmates against the proposal.
"I was kind of in-between," he said. "It wouldn't be fair if they gave the opportunity to everyone."
Contreras felt that granting an alternative path to graduation, particularly one that would not require passing the state exam, might actually hurt the students it was designed to help.
"If they do take the easy route, it's just going to be that much harder in college," he said. He did say he could imagine a version of the bill applying to students who are new to the country, for whom passing the state exams could be unrealistic.
The LEAP conference ran Feb. 19-20, with the students' expenses covered by the TRiO/ETS program. The conference draws primarily immigrant and undocumented youths from throughout the state.
Among the highlights was getting to see a state resolution adopted recognizing Japanese-Americans interned during World War II, and getting to meet the state's first minority senator. They also met with local Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, whom Contreras said he has been in contact with through e-mail since the conference.
The students shared optimism and enthusiasm for the experience, although when asked if they would pursue political science degrees, almost all said probably not.
"I'm going to go to college, though," Erica Salgado said.
Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.
Wa-Hi students who attended the LEAP Education Conference and Leadership Day in February are: Grasiela Ocampo, Rubi Villegas, Gemma Rivera, Erica Salgado, Jahaira Chavez, Nancy Lopez, Solmayra Mendoza, Gesner Rangel, Jose Beleche, Tony Olivos, Alexis Enriquez, and Roger Contreras. Wa-Hi's TRiO/ETS advisor is Max Weber and the program's director is Abby Muro.