Students at the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Forest Hills, Queens, were among the victims of the longest U.S. government shutdown ever.
The 9th-graders were locked out of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge where they had done research and learned they would not be able to present their findings on ecological systems and human impact. But they turned their disappointment into a civics lesson and instead staged a rally at the shuttered park on Jan. 17.
“Our students are devastated, but rather than just give up,” teacher Jenna-Lyn Zaino said, “they decided they wanted to present their findings anyway in front of the closed Visitor’s Center and to make a statement about the impact that this shutdown is having on so many people.”
Student Hannah Clark charged at the rally that though the government was shut down, student voices would not be. “This shutdown didn’t only shut down national parks, but it shut down our chance to spread light on the ignorance toward environmental issues to a larger community outside our school,” she said.
Metropolitan Expeditionary is one of 12 Outward Bound schools in the city designed to engage students in real-world problem-solving and in building relationships with their communities. The work the students were doing at the wildlife refuge met both those goals.
Zaino said that when teachers explained the shutdown and its impact on the students in the Living Environment class to the entire 9th grade, all of the students began brainstorming about how to get their voices heard. In addition to holding a rally, they wrote letters protesting the shutdown and sent them to elected officials.
While 9th-graders usually advocate only for themselves, the shutdown “broadened their vision,” Zaino said with a sense of pride.
The 195 students at the rally set up a chant and response: “Money for parks — not for walls.”
Science teacher Pareese Hankerson called the students’ experience ”a great learning moment.”
“Students were able to take leadership roles and advocate for change,” he said. “They are able to see that their voices have power, and they will not be afraid to speak out later.”