R.I. Baker students city planners

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Coaldale Mayor Kim Craig asks Spring City representatives about their SocialCity project at R.I. Baker Middle School in Coaldale

COALDALE – Their classroom schedule indicated Social Studies, but Reality 101 may have been more accurate for about 90 Grade 6 students at R.I. Baker Middle School.

In an effort to increase the students’ awareness of local government, they were put into groups for a month-long project dubbed SocialCity. Planning their own communities – and having to work within set parameters – definitely opened some eyes.

“I saw it in the budgeting aspect, where they were saying ‘we want this and that and we want all of these things,’ ”says teacher Michael Willems. “And I was like, ‘yes, but you have to recognize there are limitations and you have to recognize what you value as a city and what your citizens want and, therefore, what sacrifices need to be made.’ ”

Each group of students came up with a town name and slogan, elected city council members, and, with a set budget, planned out their community with all the prerequisite services, and more than a few luxuries in mind. After plotting out civic buildings, malls, residential areas and more on a five-by-three foot-grid, each had to come up with a bylaw to deal with a particular scenario in their city.

Tearing a page from recent headlines, those situations included kids playing Pokémon Go on other people’s lawns, and an underground bottle-flipping club with kids sneaking out late at night to partake in a city park.

The project wrapped up with students, in a tradeshow-style setting, selling a panel of judges on why they should move to their respective community.  Adding to the authenticity of the project were the judges – the entire Coaldale town council and its top administrator.

Despite the fact R.I. Baker has enjoyed a working relationship with Mayor Kim Craig through its Mayor for the Day campaign, Willems wasn’t taking anything for granted when he put out the invitation to council members.  Then one confirmation turned into another, and another, and so on.

“Every day as I updated the kids, they got more and more excited knowing there were that many local government members that were interested,” he says.

Craig says council appreciated the opportunity to help students learn more about a level of government which most directly affects every Canadian. He was duly impressed with the thought and passion evident in the students’ presentations, as well as the pride they showed for the communities they’d created.

“A lot of them really came up with communities that I think almost every member of council would be proud of,” the mayor says. “Communities where you could have all phases of life – be born, grow up and have your job – and a complete cycle of life could happen.”

Willems, in turn, was grateful for how seriously the council members took the assignment and the thought that went into the questions they asked of each group.

Some were asked where they’d choose to live in their own planned community and why, and whether they’d have curbside pickup to promote recycling. Still others had to think on their feet when asked if residents were allowed to raise livestock in their backyard.

“I think the kids really felt validated by that,” Willems says. “It wasn’t just ‘oh, these adults are patronizing us in a way,’ but they were invested and they were involved and they were taking it really seriously.”

Once students made their pitch, council members talked about their roles and answered questions. Not only was it beneficial for students to meet real-life politicians, he says they learned how citizens and their representatives can work together to solve community issues.

“Grade 6 Social Studies is all themed around democracy and the concept that it’s not this distant thing happening in Ontario that never affects us here in Coaldale, Alberta,” says Willems. “Whether your goal is ultimately to be a politician or just an active citizen who stands up and voices their opinion, the biggest takeaway for students is that they can be engaged and they have the power to make a difference in their community.”

It would be wonderful, says Mayor Craig, if the exposure the project provided resulted in one of those students becoming a future councillor, mayor, or town manager.

Willems hopes to make the project an annual one and perhaps even extend it in the future to provide students a taste of provincial and federal politics as well.