High school students offer solutions to community problems

Megan Strickland

Future Longhorn Joe Ramos said the community service skills he learned through a state-wide competition at UT will be tools he brings onto campus as a freshman at the McCombs School of Business next year.

The Stony Point High School senior was one of 150 students from 11 high schools and middle schools from across the state that participated in the 10th annual Speak Up! Speak Out! competition, hosted by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation at UT on Thursday.

She said Speak Up! Speak Out! is a civics fair where teams of students identify an issue they have researched within their communities and present a solution to judges at the fall event.

Ramos presented his team’s plan for reducing the number of teens engaging in at-risk activities such as substance abuse and violence by increasing extracurricular engagement.

“We identified that extracurricular activity decreases the risk of engaging in destructive behaviors,” Ramos said.

He said his team formulated an incentive program that would reward extracurricular organizations that increased outreach to students in the summer and winter breaks.

“Above all we’re trying to create opportunities for students that might not otherwise be able to participate,” he said.

Ramos said he believes the experience will benefit him as he enters the McCombs School of Business next year.

“I think it will definitely help in McCombs because McCombs, and the entire Austin community, has such a strong value of community engagement,” Ramos said.

The teams make three rotations during the competition, spokeswoman for the Annette Strauss Institute Erin Geisler said. The first rotation consists of two speeches, one informative and one persuasive. Judges then question students about the speeches, Geisler said. In the next round students present a tri-fold display in a style similar to a science fair presentation. In the final round judges evaluate students during a session where they are asked to personally reflect on their findings, she said.

The top three teams win a $300, $200 and $100 cash prize to put towards their community issue, Geisler said.

Deborah Wise, program coordinator for the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation, said the entire goal of Speak Up! Speak Out! is to give students the capability to change their communities in the future.

“Our hope really is that students learn skills they can use for the rest of their lives,” Wise said. “The goal of this is to equip them with the basic skills to make a difference in community.”

Pflugerville High School counselor Sarah Mullin said she believes the program is an innovative way to get students involved.

“I think it’s really helpful to have students step out from themselves and think about the community as a whole, and how they can make a positive impact,” Mullin said. “I like seeing students getting involved and thinking of solutions to community issues and not just talking about the problems.”

Printed on Friday, December 2, 2011 as: UT hosts state-wide service skills competition