By Shawn Regan
---- — Hunking Middle School was teeming with lawmakers, lawyers, jurors and witnesses last week.
Well, eight-grade students playing those roles anyway.
State Rep. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, stopped by the middle school Friday for a program aimed at teaching eighth-grade students about the democratic process. The freshman lawmaker’s district includes parts of Haverhill.
The civic education program covered the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. It is designed to educate students about what it means to be a citizen and how to participate in the democratic process, DiZoglio said.
Students had the opportunity to participate in mock legislative sessions and a judicial hearing with Michael Ryan of the state Office of Jury Commissioner.
“In a time with an ever-growing cynicism about government, this was a great opportunity for the students to learn that, at its core, our government is still for the people and by the people,” Hunking Principal Jared Fulgoni said. “One of our greatest charges as both a school and as a society is to educate our young citizens to sustain our democracy. The students got to not only learn about government, but actually got to participate in it and experience it in action.”
Eighth-grader Iyana White, who played a committee chairwoman in a mock legislative hearing, was impressed with DiZoglio and Ryan.
“They were like regular people,” she said. “I had never met a state politician before.”
“It was a very creative way of learning,” said Ryan Garrett, another eighth-grade student. “It wasn’t just facts. I actually had to do it myself. My friends were the lawyers, jurors and witnesses and it was really fun to learn about the judiciary courts this way.”
The school in the city’s Bradford section was DiZoglio’s for stop on her Civic Education Tour. The event was held in the gymnasium.
“In class, learning about the three branches of government can be kind of boring, but this was interactive and helped us to really understand it,” said Hunking student Vincente Nolet.
DiZoglio, who has sponsored legislation to establish student civic education programs, said she is looking forward to visiting other schools in her district in the coming months.
“All too often, our classrooms lack a strong civic education program to inform students about what our state government has to do with our daily lives,” DiZoglio said. “It is so important that youth begin to genuinely grasp these basic concepts to ensure that they are able to actively participate and engage in the process as they are entering into adulthood.”
DiZoglio said two-thirds of students scored below “proficient” on a recent national civics assessment test. In 2010, more than a quarter of college students reported they did not register to vote because they did not know where or how to do so, she said.
Ryan said most high school students don’t understand the courts or their responsibility to serve on juries either.
“It is critical for students to have an understanding of our judicial system early on, given they should be prepared to serve jury duty as soon as high school,” he said.
The next stop on DiZoglio’s Civic Education Tour is Oct. 18 at Methuen High School. She is also talking to officials in Lawrence and North Andover schools about holding civic events in those communities.
What students learned about
How laws are made
The importance of voting
How court hearings work
The responsibilities of a jury