By Bob Skolnik
First term Congressman Jesus "Chuy" Garcia (D-4th Congressional District) came to L.J. Hauser Junior High School last week to discuss climate change and immigration with sixth-graders who had written him, urging him to take action to address those issues as part of a class unit about government.
The sixth-graders had been studying government and were learning how to make change. After reading newspapers on Fridays, they decided to focus on what they considered the two most talked about issues: climate change and immigration.
Students wrote letters to Garcia, senators Richard Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, state Rep. Michael Zalewski and Riverside Village President Ben Sells, asking them what they were doing to address these issues.
While Durbin and Duckworth responded with detailed letters, Garcia's office wrote back asking if he could come to Hauser to talk about these issues with the students.
On May 27, Garcia spent about 90 minutes at Hauser. Sixth-grader Tommy Kos, who had written to Garcia about immigration, was excited to meet the congressman and was impressed by the visit.
"I was surprised he came," Kos told the Landmark afterwards in a telephone interview.
Hauser sixth-grade social studies teacher Julie Chomko was also thrilled.
"I had never met a congressman, so I felt honored that he spent his time here," Chomko said. "He was very friendly and engaging and warm."
Garcia, who was elected to Congress last year, first met with all 200 or so Hauser sixth-graders in the auditorium. He introduced himself, told the students about himself, made general comments and took questions.
"I thought he was very relatable to sixth-grade students," said Riverside Elementary School District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye, who observed Garcia's visit. "That impressed me."
Afterward, Garcia went to the Hauser library to participate in smaller 10- to 15-minute roundtable discussions with students who had written to him. Students presented their problem-solving ideas and asked Garcia detailed questions that they had written on note cards in preparation for the meeting.
"I think it was opportunity for our sixth-graders to be able ask questions, share ideas and really engage in a dialogue with him," Ryan-Toye said. "It felt like a great real-world application of their learning."
There were two roundtable groups, one focusing on climate change and one on immigration. Each roundtable had a student assigned to facilitate the discussion.
"They were very excited," Chomko said of the students. "They were nervous, but I felt like they were definitely well-prepared."
The students pressed Garcia to take action to halt climate change and solve the problems at the U.S. Mexico border by supporting more aid to Central American countries from which most recent border crossers were coming from.
Kos participated in the roundtable about immigration. He said that he felt Garcia truly listened to him and his classmates.
"I thought it was nice being able to share our opinions about the topic," Kos said. "We were able to explain the causes and explain some of the solutions to make the immigration problem better. He took notes, which I also liked, so that he could report back."
Garcia apparently was impressed with the concern and knowledge of the Hauser students.
"It was refreshing to listen to the Hauser Junior High students' concerns and ideas about critical issues like climate change, health care and immigration," Garcia said in an emailed statement issued by his communications director. "Their letters made me think about engaging more with young people in my district, so I decided to visit and have a conversation with them."
The Landmark requested permission to observe and cover Garcia's visit to Hauser, but Ryan-Toye barred the newspaper from being present for the visit.
"Our goal is not to politicize this event at all," Ryan-Toye said before the visit. "It's a purely educational event, and it's a sixth-grade social studies unit and it's our preference not to have the press."
After the visit Ryan-Toye said more about the decision to exclude the press.
"We wanted it to be a very core educational experience for our students," Ryan-Toye said. "We didn't want our students to feel self-conscious."
Ryan-Toye's decision to exclude the press might have been influenced by concerns raised about the visit by former school board President Mary Rose Mangia, who expressed concern that students were not being presented with all sides of the issues and said that she didn't want students to be brainwashed. She also had concerns about encouraging middle school students to become activists.
"I'm concerned about any school system or course at the elementary and middle school level that encourages advocacy," Mangia said. "I don't want to pay for advocacy on the part of the students, the teachers, or politicians"
Chomko said that while the goal of the unit was to teach kids how to be active, engaged citizens and to show them how change is made, the class unit had no particular ideological bent.
"This is just purely curricular, and it wasn't a political type project in nature," Chomko said. "We were just researching the root causes of why people are coming to America and escaping poverty and certainly not putting any type of partisan bent on that, nor is climate change a partisan issue, either."
Mangia, who raised her concerns and sought information about Garcia's visit in the phone conversation with Ryan-Toye, wasn't assuaged.
"They made no effort to get people who represent another point of view other than Chuy Garcia's," Mangia said.
Elizabeth Kos, Tommy's mother, thought the whole exercise was worthwhile.
"I think it gets kids to start thinking about the importance of paying attention to what's going on in our community and advocating for the things that are important to them," Kos said. "I think that's an important lesson for kids to learn."
Garcia told the students that he himself immigrated to the United States. Some of the students participating in the roundtables had parents or grandparents who were immigrants.
"One of the students kind of made a connection with him on that topic, so I think it was pretty special in that regard," Chomko said." I don't think it was something that the students will ever forget."