National program guides students

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 21, 2003

LeRoy-Ostrander High School students were frustrated with their lunch period.

About 120 high schoolers take lunch at the same time, making the wait in line long and the time to eat shorter.

So they asked for change and offered the principal and teachers three options for a solution.

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Now classes are dismissed for lunch by intervals. The lines are shorter. The students happier.

What got the students into action? Team leaders in a new group called Project 540 used the skills they learned from training to ask for change.

Project 540, a national program, teaches students to figure out what issues they are concerned with and ways to solve those problems. The 540 part of the name means 540 degrees or a revolution and a half -- a transformation creators of the project hope comes from the students.

But improving a lunch period is just a part of the project. It aims to help high schoolers become involved in the decision-making processes of their schools and communities and eventually in state, national and global issues.

Students from Austin, Grand Meadow and LeRoy-Ostrander High Schools have been working with the project since last fall.

Project 540 helps students figure out what concerns them most and guides them to the right outlets to seek change, according to Project 540 officials.

In Minnesota alone, 21 high schools are involved. A total of 250 high schools from 14 states have decided to participate. Each site had to apply to become a part of the project and Minnesota's site was selected.

Bari Amadio, Minnesota's Project 540 site coordinator, said the quick action by the L-O students was ahead of most groups.

"They already knew what they were going to do," she said.

LeRoy-Ostrander Principal Steven Bongers was impressed with the students willingness to work with the administration to solve the lunch problem.

"I said, 'That sounds like a wonderful option, let's go for it,'" Bongers said.

The ultimate goal of the project it to come up with a plan for a problem students have identified and then to implement that plan, Amadio said.

The project involves a number of steps guided by the school's principal and a designated teacher. A leadership team of students facilitates discussion with the student body about their concerns and what problems they think need to be solved.

The project was created by a group of youth educators at Providence College in Rhode Island and is funded by Pew Charitable Trusts.

The Southeastern Service Cooperative, an organization that supports education, is sponsoring the Minnesota site.

Students and educators attended a conference in November in Rochester for training. After training, groups hold four dialogue sessions with their peers. In the first session, the students are asked to list what issues they think are important or what problems need to be solved. They are asked to think of issues on a local level and then globally.

The leadership team takes the list and picks the top three or five issues.

Austin High School has completed the first dialogue. Junior Nancy Nelson, a leadership team member, is in the process of compiling the lists they collected from the social studies classes.

"It's amazing how concerned they are with world issues," Nelson said.

Andrea Malo, a ninth grade social studies teacher and student council adviser, is AHS's lead teacher. Principal Joe Brown asked her if she would like to participate in the program and they asked four student council members to be a part of the leadership team.

At Grand Meadow High School, the students have completed the first dialogue with the entire high school student body. Bill Simpkins, the lead teacher, said the 10 students in the leadership team are figuring out the top three issues from the class.

"What we want to do is find out what's on their minds," Simpkins said. "If they find out there are not enough resources, we'll find out why."

The leadership team students have been able to talk to students at other schools about the project.

"We're moving along on the same track," said Matt Day, a sophomore on the AHS team.

Those involved in the project are impressed with the student's involvement.

"They are genuinely concerned with what's going on in the world," Brown said.

Cari Quam can be reached at 434-2235 or by e-mail at