New York State School Boards Association

Program immerses students in law and government

On Board Online • Schools Today • June 9, 2008

By Marc Humbert
Senior Writer

In a government building in Albany, a group is sitting around a circular table. Topics of conversation range from campaign finance reform to the impact of race on the West Virginia primary. Are these legislators, policy wonks or politicos? Nope. They’re 10 high school seniors from throughout the Capital District.

The students are enrolled in the Capital Region BOCES’s New Visions: Law & Government program. They spend most school-day mornings either in a makeshift classroom in the State Education Department building in downtown Albany or at internships, some of them with government officials across the street at the state Capitol.

Begun in 1996, the program bills itself as “competitive, rigorous, (and) immersion-based.” It has attracted students from beyond the Capital Region BOCES district. Teacher Richard Bader, a lawyer and former journalist, has been running the program since October 2000.

In addition to an interest in the subject matter, candidates for admission must have completed all Regents graduation requirements by the end of their junior year and have maintained a minimum grade point average of 85.

During the year-long program, the students sharpen their writing, speaking and research skills. By the end of the term, they are expected to be qualified to “recognize and model exemplary ethical, leadership, interpersonal and decision-making skills requisite to the role of a responsible citizen.”

The reading list is nothing if not eclectic – everything from The Federalist Papers to Machiavelli’s The Prince. Screenings of such film classics as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Dr. Strangelove” are thrown in for good measure.

There are visits to prisons and FBI offices, and internships with state legislators, the attorney general and even lobbying organizations such as the New York State Sheriffs’ Association. NYSSBA General Counsel Jay Worona has been a speaker.

“New Vision was a huge deal for me,” Andria Bentley, a 2001 alumna, told the current class recently. “It was really helpful in college and has been enormously helpful in law school.”

Following her undergraduate work at the University at Albany, Bentley worked for several years as a press aide to then-state Senate Minority Leader David Paterson, now New York’s new governor.

Bentley said it was during her time working in the Legislature that she discovered the people with the really powerful jobs generally held law degrees and that when it came to the lack of advanced degrees, “they treat women differently.”

Bentley is about to start her third year at Albany Law School and will serve as managing editor of its law review.

For some of the students, the internships have been rewarding.

“They include me in a lot,” said Justin Borom from Schoharie High School. Borom’s winter internship with Assemblyman Peter Lopez went so well that he is back for a spring internship with the same lawmaker.

Lopez, elected in 2006, represents Schoharie and parts of six other counties southwest of Albany.

“He’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat,” said Borom. “It lets me see the other side.”

“We don’t want them making coffee,” said state Sen. Neil Breslin, an Albany Democrat, who is making use of Sam Moss’ skills this spring.

Moss, a Guilderland high school senior, said that among his duties is working on constituent issues and the senator’s legislative agenda.

“You frequently encounter the perception that the state Legislature doesn’t do anything, but that’s just not right,” Moss said.

Ada Lauterbach from Berne-Knox-Westerlo High School said she has found her stint with the counsel’s office for state Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco (R-Schenectady) worthwhile.

“I do a lot of research on bills,” she said.

Asked about a recent report from a government reform group that called New York’s state Legislature the most dysfunctional in the nation, Geoff DeLuca of Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk High School said, “It’s a pretty good description of them.”

“So much was based on who you know, not what you know,” added Scotia-Glenville’s Jack Lewis.

“You see a lot of complacency in your government,” said Andy Swab, another Scotia-Glenville student and the winner of Syracuse University’s $20,000 Maxwell Citizenship Scholarship this year for his public policy proposal on installing solar panels on his high school’s roof. He beat out 106 other competitors for the award.

“The problem is the (Democratic-controlled) Assembly and the (Republican-led) Senate are both so partisan,” Swab said. “Whatever your party leader tells you to do, you do it, or else you won’t get re-elected.”

Ben Wegener, another Scotia-Glenville student, said the program’s heavy focus on writing, speaking and debating makes it a winner.

“These are skills that are going to help you whether you decide to go into law and government or not,” he said. “It’s kind of a safety net.”

If nothing else, the program brings AP credit with it.

“Colleges like to see that,” noted Tim Snapp, also from Scotia-Glenville.

The students annually spend one of their final weeks in Washington, D.C. This year they were to be there from June 1-5 with a packed schedule that included everything from a tour of the U.S. Supreme Court to attendance at a White House press briefing.

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