Himes provides another 'perspective' to seventh-graders
The discussion ranged from eliminating fast-food restaurants like McDonalds in the fight against obesity to placing a tax on items like candy to help the nation's struggling economy.
Middlesex Middle School seventh-grade students expressed a basic understanding of issues State Rep. Jim Himes (D-4) is currently dealing with in Washington when the class met with the first-year congressman in an assembly Friday morning in the school's auditorium.
"It was a great discussion, but more than anything else, I'm just so thrilled about issues three, four, five years down the road they'll be voting on," Himes said. "I represent them and their families, so their points of view are well considered. It's my job to take those to Washington in what is a very vigorous debate right now."
Himes' visit coincided with the seventh-graders current social studies lesson on the Canadian health-care system. Frank Keen, social studies curriculum monitor for the grade, said one member of the department e-mailed Himes in late August and asked if he could address the students sometime this fall.
An unexpected opening in Himes' Friday schedule became available Wednesday night, and according to a Himes spokesperson, visiting the middle school was "not logistically challenging and was easy to schedule" for the congressman's staff in a short amount of time.
But it left the school with just about 24 hours to prepare for the assembly.
"It was short notice, but we didn't want to miss the opportunity. We wanted to hear him and he has a right to hear the students' points of view," said Keen, a teacher with the district the past 32 years. "We don't notify parents every time we have an assembly. That's not a school policy. We told the kids [Thursday]. I wasn't able to tell my first-period class, because I didn't find out until second period, but I quickly spread the word through e-mail. It all happened in just 24 hours."
In the first of five regional events on Himes' schedule Friday, the congressman spent 45 minutes with the Darien seventh-graders. After addressing the approximately 400 students about health care and the rising rate of obesity, Himes answered several questions.
Himes' address was one of several resources the students will use to write a health-care plan to the congressman this week that they feel is best for the country. Teachers have also provided the students with news articles and have asked them to discuss the issue with their parents.
"It's a great thing to get these kids involved," Himes said. "A kid at age 13 or 14 is thinking about this stuff and gets used to thinking about the issues of the day is the type of citizen we want in this country. At the town hall meetings, there were people yelling and screaming. I'd much rather have an angry person at a town hall meeting than an apathetic person sitting at home. What we saw here was kids learning how to be engaged."
The discussion, however, raised concern with at least one parent who believed Himes was "pushing an agenda." Trish Whitehead asked the school if she could attend the assembly, but was told there wasn't enough room in the auditorium. Whitehead said her daughter, Caitlin Mobley, 11, felt Himes used the school as a political backdrop.
The district insisted Himes' visit was for educational purposes only and was not politically motivated.
"It boils down to this is part of our curriculum," Assistant Superintendent Stephen Falcone said. "This is central to what we do. Teachers make decisions on how to make kids aware of particular issues. They've read articles about the American health-care system. They're read articles about other countries' systems. This was another perspective."
The district's decision last month not to air President Barack Obama's nationwide address to students because it interfered with classroom scheduling sparked a political debate in town.
So far, Himes' appearance hasn't drawn as much attention.
"I pointed out to many people who complained [last month] that Congressman Shays had spoken and if Congressman Himes wanted to come to one of our schools at a mutually convenient time and place, we'd be happy to have him. The seventh-grade social studies teachers thought it would be constructive and educational to have the congressman come," said Board of Education Chairman John Boulton, a Republican.
"He was invited by the school. Health care is part of their curriculum. Within the context of this being an educational event and not a publicity event for Mr. Himes, we felt this served an educational purpose."
Parents were notified of Himes' appearance through students, who were asked to discuss the health-care topic with a parent Thursday night and formulate questions to ask at the assembly.
"I'm not surprised in a population of 19,000 that there are some people in Darien who would be opposed to the students listening to their congressman. But that would be a very small fraction," Keen said.
"If anyone came to me with a concern about the project, I don't know how they could complain once I explain how we're hearing both sides. We only have one congressman. We can't invite a second congressman to have a different point of view. The kids have been exposed to both points of view in the classroom and the teachers have remained very much neutral."