Dream team: Teacher sponsors of multiple political science programs join forces


Ishajanek Overton (12) and Keira Neal (12) read a proposal at the 2016 District Youth and Government conference. Overton and Neal participated in the State Affairs portion of the conference, held at Austin High School in Austin, Texas.

The very first meeting for Youth and Government (YAG) this year was in Ms. Jill DiCuffa’s classroom, suited for a maximum of 30 students and filled with upwards of 50. This is the largest number of students to participate in the program since it began at Ann Richards nine years ago. During this meeting, the debate coach, Ms. Devi Puckett, and the co-sponsors of YAG, Ms. Abby Williams and Ms. DiCuffa, announced that the two clubs will be merging this year.

“I’ve always had some passion for it where I like to discuss different topics and why they matter,” Jackelyn Ortega (11), a first year YAG participant and possible debater said. “I like to get into these debates with my family and friends over small topics and I just think it’s really fun. You get to learn about different people’s views, and so I feel like if I were to join I would get to debate about actual problems and it would be an interesting experience.”

Both programs appeal to students who are interested in politics, argumentation of philosophy and morality, and learning public speaking skills. Each program practices at least once a week, requires a few hours of work outside of practice, and has multiple conferences throughout the year. There are differences between the two programs, but they are drawing from the same crowd of students.

“Now [that we are merging] I think we’ll have more participation in both instead of less participation,” Ms. Puckett said. “Because [in the past, students] thought they could only do only one. That’s what my hope is. We won’t know until we see the end of the year.”

The sponsors of the programs intend to try the merge for one year to test it out. If successful, the merge will continue every year, and each year they will try to add political sciences and humanities oriented programs to the “club.” Since the school does not have a Political Sciences/Humanities pathway, and there are many students interested in pursuing social science paths, the teachers involved in programs like YAG and Debate want to create a club that encompases all of opportunities that help students pursue political careers.

“I could see it, if we’re successful on this, that we could just pop stuff on as we go,” Ms. Puckett said. “I’d like it to be menu-like, not where it’s a demand on the students, but that they’re able to choose things they want to do.”

The options on the menu, a few years down the road, would ideally include UIL debate and competitions that have to do with political sciences (i.e. essay contest and veterans affairs contest), Model U.N., and the National Hispanic Institute* (which includes the Great Debate).

“I decided to join YAG this year because I’ve always had the idea of wanting to do something with law, but I never knew exactly what I wanted to do,” Ortega said. “I thought that by joining YAG I would get an experience that could help me decide on a career for college that I will actually enjoy.”

Instead of having these program compete with each other, the teachers sponsors decided it was better to work together and let the students participate in multiple, which also welcomes students who are unsure of what to participate in. For now, the merge will operate as debate-style training in the fall with some preparation for YAG mixed in, YAG participation in the winter, and then debate training and competing continues in the spring.

“We have this huge Youth and Government program, and we’ve seen the benefits for years and years,” Vice Principal Ms. Kristina Waugh said. “Kids come back transformed. So we want to get as many people involved in it as possible, but that also takes a lot of staffing.”

The merge would allow more staff to work together on the same number of students, putting less weight on the program sponsors and allowing them to serve more students with the same amount of time and resources.

“We have two issues,” Ms. Waugh said. “One is staff and how every staff member that we have has an extracurricular activity of some sort, and many of them have multiple, so not only do they do their job, but then they do their other job, and then they might have a family. It’s just about spreading people thin, but it’s also about spreading our students thin, because then you guys are all ‘Type A’ people and you want to do everything and be great at everything, and then you kind of over involve and overcommit.”

According to Ms. Puckett, at the end of last year there were about 15 people interested in debate; ever since introducing the merge, around 45 people have expressed interested in debate.

“Last year when I first got here, and I saw that debate was really small [with] three people, I wondered how we could build it and not compete with Youth and Government,” Puckett said. “It doesn’t make sense to pull people away from that program. In order to grow and support both programs, it makes sense to put them under one umbrella of political science stuff.”

The ‘umbrella of political science stuff’ Puckett mentions would be the menu-like club that holds Youth and Government, Debate, UIL, Model U.N., and the National Hispanic Institute. This would encourage ARS students who are interested in being lawyers, public representatives, policy makers, and aware citizens to pursue their passions and get experience in debate, legislation, and leadership.

Though many Ann Richards students are involved in Humanities related organizations and hope to pursue careers in those areas, Ms. Waugh believes a STEM background is essential for most careers in political sciences, so it is unlikely that the school will create a Political Sciences or Humanities pathway from this club. Additionally, the founders chose pathways that are underrepresented for females and areas of need in America and Austin itself, so it is important to Waugh to stay focused on those pathways.

“We’re a STEM school with an excellent humanities program,” Waugh said. “I think that’s really important.”

*The National Hispanic Institute is a Latino-based organization that runs a debate program for ninth graders, a legislative session for tenth and eleventh graders, and a college readiness/inquiry based program for eleventh graders in order to prepare Latino youth to take leadership.