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From classroom to Capitol

NCR Staff
Jefferson City, Mo.

The questions the sixth- and seventh-grade students had prepared for legislators were already blunt, but in the hands of one 12-year-old, they briefly turned into a grilling as she confronted a Missouri state senator. He did not support the bill she and her classmates had come to the capital to push -- a tax credit for the working poor.

“Have you actually met a poor person?” Mallory Bahmani, a seventh grader at St. Patrick’s School in Kansas City, Mo., asked state Sen. Larry Rohrbach.

The students’ activities were part of a pioneering program designed to teach children about Catholic social doctrine and how to move beyond charity to work for change in social structures that keep people in poverty.

Rohrbach said yes, he had met a poor person. So had Mallory and her classmates: They had met Kristin and Kurtis, each single parents living in poverty. The young lobbyists were in their state capital, Jefferson City, Mo., Feb. 7 to share Kristin’s and Kurtis’ stories and to press lawmakers to pass the tax credit bill that would help them and other poor families.

“You can collect canned goods until you drop,” said Tom Turner, one of the program’s creators. “If you work for justice, it has a wider impact.”

The three-month lesson plan, called “That’s Not Fair! A Program for Teaching Catholic Social Doctrine to Sixth Grade,” was developed last year at St. Patrick’s School. In the 2000-2001 school year, it is being used in 14 schools in the Kansas City area. Turner, director of Bishop Sullivan Center, a local social service agency, hopes next to take it nationwide.

“That’s Not Fair!” had its genesis in the previous school year, when Turner had been invited to speak to Catholic school principals about Catholic social justice teachings. There, Turner was met with a challenge: “One principal said, ‘Talk is cheap. Let’s see you guys do something,’ ” Turner said. That was Jean Roach, the principal of St. Patrick’s. The school’s sixth-grade religion teacher, Patricia Scherrer Haney, was willing to work on it, and she and Turner began a week-to-week experiment -- putting lessons together usually the night before the weekly social justice unit, Haney said.

“I came to the relationship not knowing anything about the church’s teaching, and he came to the relationship not knowing anything about sixth graders,” Haney said. “That’s why we combined so well.”

With Turner’s suggestions for the concepts of Catholic social teaching that needed to be taught -- human dignity, the difference between charity and justice, solidarity, subsidiarity and a preferential option for the poor -- the two developed classroom exercises, including games, art projects and skits, to communicate those teachings. Together they taught the classes.

The lessons worked so well that Turner and Haney created a teachers’ manual, which this year has been used in Catholic schools throughout the Kansas City area. The manual also includes a teachers’ section that includes theological background, biblical references and excerpts from church documents.

The program’s entertainment approach made the difference in its effectiveness, according to Marla Byrne, who was the outside presenter collaborating with the sixth-grade teacher to implement the program this year at St. Thomas More School in Kansas City. “Every time I’d come, I’d hear, ‘Are we going to play another game?’ I think sending the message through these parables was the best way,” said Byrne, a volunteer at Bishop Sullivan Center. “They would never have gone for any kind of lecturing, but it was the games that made the program work.”

Aubrey Adams, 11, a St. Thomas More sixth-grader, agreed, saying that the lessons were “fun, and it’s better than just sitting and getting a lecture, because it’s interactive.”

But the classroom education is only one element in the program’s four components. The others seek to take the teachings out of the classroom and into action. On the advice of the Missouri Catholic Conference, Turner and Haney chose the issue of earned income tax credits for the working poor, a bill before the Missouri State Legislature, as the real-life issue to which St. Patrick’s students would apply their knowledge of Catholic social doctrine.

The first step outside the classroom takes students to a social service agency where they meet some poor people and hear their stories. The objective is to personalize the issue of poverty and dispel stereotypes. Erin Campbell, 12, said her perceptions had definitely changed.

“We had an image of poor people as dirty people, living on the street with raggedy clothes,” she said. “But we learned there are working poor. Some people still look nice when they’re poor, and we have to go past the looks and try to help them out.”

Last year, Erin and her classmates, then in the sixth grade, met Joyce through the Bishop Sullivan Center. They asked Joyce, a single mother, what she would do with $1,000 she might get from an income tax credit. “You should have seen her face,” Erin said. “It just lit up. It was the saddest thing you’ve ever seen. I felt so bad for her. She would buy some furniture, some clothes for her kids, food, toys.”

The next step is to bring what the kids are learning to the attention of the parish’s adults. At St. Patrick’s, the students made a presentation during Mass the Sunday before their trip to Jefferson City and after Mass collected signatures in support of the earned income tax credit that they would present to the state senator and representative for their district.

Sixth grader Lauren Luerding said she ran out of cards and had to have people sign on the back while collecting signatures Feb. 4. Her friend Stephanie Hall added, “It felt good that everybody was with us -- that the church was with us.”

The children’s lessons also made an impact on their parents, who themselves may have been unaware of the church’s social justice teachings, Haney said. She recalled that at the start of the program, a mother and father asked her, “Are you also going to teach the kids that those people made those choices -- that they made the choice to do drugs and they made the choice not to get a job?”

Haney said, “I explained, ‘You know you’re right, a lot of people do make those choices. But the majority of them don’t. Sad to say, the majority of them were born into that situation, and it’s hard to get out of it.’

“By the Jefferson City trip, I got the nicest note from those same parents that said, ‘We appreciate everything you and Tom have done for these kids. They’ve learned so much, and so have we.’ Not only do we educate the kids, but the kids in turn educate their parents and our parish,” Haney said.

The program’s final component is to take an action for justice. For two years in a row, the students of St. Patrick’s have made a day trip to Missouri’s capital of Jefferson City to lobby for the earned income tax credit bill. The bill died in committee last year, but it has been revived. Last year’s veterans, now seventh graders, joined St. Patrick’s sixth grade class this year to make the effort to push the bill again.

When the bill failed last year, Haney said, the students “were outwardly disappointed, but they learned real quick that if you want something you’ve got to keep fighting for it.”

They also learned lessons on how to refine their presentation. “Last year, we just free-falled it,” Erin told NCR on the train to Jefferson City. “We went there, we showed them our posters, and then it was dead. This year we have questions, ideas -- we’re prepared for anything.”

As the train pulled into Jefferson City Feb. 7, Haney ran through last-minute reminders on effective lobbying with the students. No hands in pockets, no slouching, no fidgeting, no leaning on furniture. Use sir and ma’am. Smile. And say “thank you.”

Divided into two groups of about 20 each and joined by adult supervisors, St. Patrick’s students then spent the day walking from office to office in the capitol building, making their presentation to legislators who happened to be in.

Only three lawmakers agreed to appointments. “It’s the culture in capitals,” Turner said, “to just drop in -- you can’t get set appointments. Catching them in is the trick.”

In each office, one student would read a parable the students had written and illustrated. The story line involved a group of students who made a plea to a king to share resources with the peasants. Students briefly recounted the situations of Kristin and Kurtis, the single parents they met at the Bishop Sullivan Center this year.

They asked the “tough kid questions,” Turner said, questions they had prepared. How do you feel knowing there are working poor who can’t pay their bills or buy clothes for their children? Why would you give money to a business when people don’t have enough money for clothes and food? When we come down here, are we making a difference or are we just wasting our time?

Legislators assured them that their lobbying efforts were not a waste of time. Several even encouraged them to take it a step further and consider a career in politics. “By being here, you add an emphasis to a group of people who really can’t be here,” said Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell. “The waitress can’t afford to come because it means a day’s pay. You add that voice.”

Legislators had a few points of their own to make, giving students lessons in some of the realities of government. For instance, Sen. Ronnie DePasco, D-Kansas City, a co-sponsor of the bill, told them that there is a budget shortfall this year, making the tax credit bill difficult to pass in a state that by law must have a balanced budget.

The students also learned that “you’re not always preaching to the choir,” Turner said. Rohrbach, the California, Mo., Republican state senator whom Mallory Bahmani had so persistently questioned, remained steadfast in opposing the bill. He had been left momentarily speechless at Mallory’s question, “Don’t you think poor people deserve the same stuff as rich people do, because God made everyone equal?” (“In terms of having their basic needs met,” teacher Turner clarified for the senator.)

But Rohrbach explained that he believed it was more important to work for a society “where we’re mobile, where people that are poor may not always be poor, where there’s opportunity.”

Rohrbach briefly mentioned that he had once received a tax credit himself. He did not elaborate on the circumstances. Stephanie had taken note of this in objecting to his stance. “I thought he should agree with the bill, since a tax credit had helped him,” she said on the train back to Kansas City. Both she and Lauren seemed resigned that their lobbying had not changed Rohrbach’s mind.

In late afternoon, students and adults gathered for Mass at St. Peter, a Catholic church next to the capitol building. The group was exhausted and footsore from a day of marching up and down stairs between offices. After readings that included the story of the Good Samaritan, Turner reminded the young lobbyists that about this time of day Kristin, a waitress, would be getting off work. “I bet her feet are sore every day about this time,” he said.

The legislators expect paid lobbyists to come talk to them, Turner said, but they were “amazed that not only are you guys not paid, but you had a bake sale to raise money to come down here. That’s just unheard of -- that a group would raise money to come down here to speak on behalf of the poor.”

Meanwhile, in 13 other schools in the Kansas City area, classrooms lined up their own lobbying activities. They planned to push for initiatives that included fair housing, changes in Medicaid rules and aid for the elderly.

According to Joan Rosenhauer, special projects coordinator at the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Department of Social Development and World Peace, it’s this component that makes the program a valuable response to the bishops’ call to share Catholic social teaching. “Most schools do a very good job involving students in direct service activities -- providing clothing, food, all those responses to immediate needs,” she said. “What happens less often in efforts by school and religious education programs is getting kids involved in shaping public policy.”

The three sixth-grade classes at St. Thomas More focused their attention on raising the federal minimum wage. Before their planned visits to the local offices of their U.S. Senate and House representatives, they made presentations during all Masses the weekend of Feb. 18. “Raising the minimum wage can help the poor get a better life,” St. Thomas More student Katie Kellerman, 12, told NCR.

The question has been raised, Turner said, about “how much is sinking in, and how much the kids are just parroting.” However, he said, “they’re 12 years old. All teaching at this age, a lot of it is parroting. It’s whatever a 12-year-old can absorb.”

Pointing to the questions St. Patrick’s students had prepared for the Missouri state legislators, Turner said, “Some kids are really sharp. They get it.”

Turner has been working with the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Department of Social Development and World Peace to disseminate the program in other cities. He and Haney plan to speak about it at the department’s Feb. 25-28 Social Ministry Gathering in Washington and at the National Catholic Education Association meeting in Milwaukee April 17-20. They also plan to develop a streamlined version of the program for use in parish religion classes for public school students.

“Most teachers are very anxious to share the Catholic social mission, but they don’t have much time,” Rosenhauer said. “This makes it so easy for them. They don’t have to create lessons, develop all the ideas. It’s all there.”

As St. Patrick’s students reflected on their experience in Jefferson City, Turner noted how often the word fun came up. Recalling how students had played ball on the lawn of the capitol building after lobbying and before Mass, he said, “They intuit the balance you need. It doesn’t have to be all work. They made it a fun thing to help others.”

In the written evaluations turned in by St. Patrick’s sixth and seventh graders, one student summed up what the program had taught: “I have learned that all people need to live a decent life, and if you help other people to live a decent life, you are like Jesus in their eyes. Also, God made everyone equal. So if we are all equal, why are there poor people still? There are poor people still because not everyone is listening to God, and we should help them hear.”

Teresa Malcolm’s e-mail address is tmalcolm@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 2, 2001