Swimming lessons, improvements to our STEAM Lab, foreign language classes, and having a bearded dragon as a class pet were among several unique and well-thought-out ideas passionately shared by DBG students during a special advocacy day on Martin Luther King Day January 20. At DBG, student voice drives everything we do – all the time – but this special event was held to give the kids a chance to allocate $2,000 in real dollars and add new programming to DBG based on their interests. In the end, they got to allocate $4,000 and several ideas were chosen. (Keep reading to find out more.)

“This is a tangible way to teach our students to stand for something they believe in, and to center their voice in programming decisions, as we always do,” said Asiyah Williamson, DBG’s associate director of enrichment. “We also of course are always focused on teaching civic and social responsibility and letting them know their voice matters and they are able to create change.”

For several weeks prior to MLK Day, our elementary, middle, and high school students spent time in their homerooms learning best practices for research and debates. They formed teams, selected ideas, and worked as groups to hone their presentations. On January 20, students first shared their advocacy pitches and debated in their homerooms. Then, several winning teams were chosen from each age group to speak in front of the entire gym, presenting their arguments and evidence to our panel of judges which included DBG executive director Jessica Hauser, chief advancement officer Peter Fezzey, and board member Cliff Brown, a real estate developer and managing partner of Woodborn Partners.

Representing one of our high school teams, 12th grader Maurice stepped up to the podium to request improvements to the DBG STEAM Lab. The popular enrichment space where students opt-in daily to learn about science, technology, engineering, art and math is currently housed inside a repurposed garage. The STEAM Lab’s ability to engage students is so remarkable, the National Science Foundation (NSF) invested $2M in a five-year research study led by Purdue University which is currently underway.

“Today I stand not only as a passionate steam lab technician, but as a representative of a dedicated group of individuals who play a pivotal role in shaping the experience of the children in our program,” Maurice told the crowd. “We propose a simple investment, a budget of $2,000, [to give our STEAM Lab] a new floor. This isn’t just about aesthetics. It’s about recognizing the importance of our area.”

Watch the full presentation below.

One group of middle school students made a strong argument for classes and workshops that teach digital content creation. “Especially in this day and age, technology is everything,” they said. Our elementary students advocated for swimming classes because, among other things, “swimming lessons are important for when you’re in the deep end.” Another elementary group told the judges DBG should have a bearded dragon as a class pet because, “this will impact the gym in a positive way… and help students learn responsibility.”

After hearing all the proposals, the judges deliberated and there were some surprising twists. Instead of selecting one student-driven idea, three proposals were chosen – one from each age group – and Brown’s company doubled the amount of funding to implement the new programs.

“Because of the phenomenal job you all did, my company is going to match the $2,000 prize, so we can have three total winners,” he told the students. “What I’m going to ask you to do is, if you did not win, I don’t want you to hear ‘no.’ I want you to hear ‘not yet.’ For those who have not been selected, what we’re going to do is ask you to refine your ideas and come back. And we’ll figure out a way to make them happen.”

The winning proposals were swimming lessons, content creation classes, and improvements to the STEAM Lab. The following day, there was yet another surprise. The elementary students who proposed the bearded dragon came back to DBG’s leaders with additional arguments and evidence to support their idea, including that bearded dragons make great pets, are gentle, are relatively low maintenance, can live for 8-10 years, and eat vegetables and insects like crickets and mealworms.

Fezzey and his wife Courtney made a special trip to a local pet store and later surprised the group with a baby bearded dragon named Jalapeno, which they promptly renamed “Rockster.” Click below to see how the students reacted to the surprise.

DBG inspires students to set goals, advocate for themselves and drive change in their communities, including change within our DBG community where student voice is at the center of everything we do. Watch for updates as we implement our students’ ideas and launch new classes and lessons at DBG in the year to come.

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