The scene in the conference room at Salk Middle School resembled a typical city committee meeting with Mayor Dietz at the head of the table giving reports from the city staff and asking questions of the group.
The only difference is that the mayor wasn't meeting with City Council Members, city staff, or local business leaders he was meeting with 17 Salk students in seventh grad who had written him letters airing their concerns about city affairs.
"I grew up in Elk River and went to school here, I received your letters and instead of writing back, I worked with staff to come up with answers so I could meet and answer them with you face to face," Dietz told the students.
For the next hour, he went around the table, student-by-student, giving a detailed response to each of their questions. "It was pretty cool that he came here and spoke with us," said Salk student Nick Larson who wrote about traffic safety concerns he has with the four-way stop at 181st Street and Twin Lakes Road. "I learned a lot about the issue and also lots of other things about our community that I'd never thought before," Larson said.
Larson wrote his letter to the Mayor as part of an assignment he completed in his social studies class taught by Ron Hustvedt (Mr. H.). Students were supposed to consider an issue they were interested in at either the local, county, state, or national level. They then conducted extensive research into the issue, wrote a position paper outlining the different sides, and then taking action by writing letters to public officials and doing something else to advocate for the issue.
"It's one thing to learn about the responsibilities of citizenship, civic engagement, and communicating with public officials, it's totally another thing to actually do it with issues that are important to you," Hustvedt said. "I wanted students to experience these duties of citizens and get an introduction to what it means to be more actively involved than just voting every few years."
Hustvedt designed the lesson as part of a national grant the district received from the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) to develop inquiry based lessons centered around getting the students prepared for college, career and civic life. "One of the central tenets of that framework is getting students take informed action and I'm very proud of how well all my students responded to that charge," he said.
Student letters went to the mayors and city council members of not just Elk River, but also Otsego, Zimmerman, Nowthen, and Ramsey. Issues regarding the school district went to the Superintendent and School Board. Students who selected county letters wrote to county commissioners and sheriffs. Letters for state issues went to state Legislators, the Governor and his commissioners. Federal issues were addressed to members of the Presidential Cabinet and members of Congress.
"The response has been pretty good form most levels of government and student have received letters back from the Governor, all our local Legislators, most county and state officials, even members of President Obama's cabinet responded, " Hustvedt said. Some students have received phone calls from local officials who spoke with them over the phone and the Wright County Sheriff visited the home of a student who wrote about an unsafe intersection near his home.
"It's great to have a student walk into class grasping a letter from her state senator, excited about receiving it, and bragging to others that she received a response, " Hustvedt said. "What was an unexpected outcome of the lesson was students who received letters from officials who disagree with the student position - It was interesting to see how students responded to that and how it really made them think about the need for being informed and involved."
None of the students reported getting a response from the ISD 728 School Board or Superintendent but most are still hopeful for a heartfelt response as other public officials submitted. Mayor Dietz spent half and hour going through each student letter and then opened up the meeting to questions from students. They grilled him for the remainder of the meeting. "I attended a meeting last summer with the City Council about the Skate Park by Lake Orono, what's the status of that?" asked 7th grade student Hayden Barnes.
"We have it all designed and everything is ready to go, we just need to pick a spot we are also trying to get cost down and get a contribution to pay for it, " Dietz said.
The mayor concluded the meeting by challenging students to continue to be involved in their community and commit to doing more to make Elk River a better place to live. "Its part of your responsibility as a citizen to not just take but to give back there are always ways to get involved in something through your classes, your school, and with the city." Dietz said.
"The city is grassroots government as its best and we work with citizens to either solve the problem or decide that it's out of our power and develop solutions at other levels."
Written by: Ron Hustvedt