Getting into action to help and heal

Say “Civics Action Project” to Lynnfield High School sophomores and they will start telling you about how they found ways to tackle mental-health needs; technology addiction, and deforestation this past fall.

One group even got the chance to work with state Rep. Tami Gouveia (D-Middlesex).

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) launched Civics Action in 2018, but COVID-19 and remote learning meant that the 2020-21 school year was Lynnfield High’s first time incorporating Civics Action into its curriculum.

Sophomores debuted the project with Brian Holihan, a graduate fellow at Merrimack College, and social-studies teachers, Dave Forester and Jen Goguen, facilitating the project.

Holihan kicked it off with a Google forum asking sophomores to list issues they are passionate about, and subjects they wanted to explore. Students with similar interests formed small groups and dug into their topics.

“One project that was really cool was a group of students who wanted to add mental-health days for students,” said Holihan. “Rather than a sick day, they’d say, ‘I’m going to take a mental-health day,’ which is a great idea, because you see it in workplaces and everywhere now, but it’s not here in the school system for specific reasons.”

Sophomores Katie Cash, Ava Delaney, Hazel Gonzalez, Cole Hawes and Brendan Sokop came up with the action plan to allow each student to take two mental-health days — meaning a student could miss school for reasons other than physical illness — per semester or four mental-health days during the school year.

For Delaney, Civics Action offered a chance to look at herself and her interests and then decide how to act on those interests. Her focus group bounced around potential project ideas with one another, and settled on the topic of mental health because they could see their classmates, as well as themselves, struggling.

“We came to mental-health days because we experience it first hand,” said Delaney. “I’ve had a day where I just don’t want to go to school and that’s a conflict we all experience, so we came to the conclusion that we wanted to do mental-health days.”

Holihan helped guide the students’ investigation into their chosen topic.

“They learn why it’s occurring, where it’s occurring, what is leading it to occur,” said Holihan. “The key there is they learn about the root cause of the issue.”

Delaney and her classmates sent an anonymous survey to sophomores, juniors and seniors asking questions about their mental-health struggles and what their thoughts were on incorporating mental-health days into the school system.

Most students responded that school, homework, personal issues, jobs, and sports were the biggest contributors to their stress.

“All of us saw that people were struggling with mental health,” said Sokop. “We made a survey, and they all (students) felt positive about mental-health days.”

With survey results in hand, the students asked how their classmates could advocate for change, and did change involve recruiting help in the community?

The first stop to answering the question was the high school Guidance Department.

“They identified who we need to talk to, they had their argument ready, they did research, they collected data from their peers, they had all the steps lined up, and then, when they got to a meeting with somebody in the Guidance Department, they received some pushback,” said Holihan.

Would mental-health days be used for the purpose the Civics Action students envisioned or would they be “ditch days?”

“It gave us a step back,” said Gonzalez, “and we had to examine everything, because we didn’t really think about it like that and then we started brainstorming who else we could talk to.”

With Holihan’s help, the students connected with Gouveia, who is working on legislation that, if passed, would change the section of state law on excused absences from school to include, “that cases of necessary absence shall include absences for the mental or behavioral health of the student.”

The students supported Gouveia by submitting a testimony to the Board of Education in favor of her bill.

“They (Board of Education) didn’t respond to our first one so I sent another one just to make sure that they got it,” said Cash. “So hopefully they did get it and hopefully that does help her with passing her bill.”

Not only did the group get to provide input to Gouveia on her bill, but she attended the students’ project showcase in the high-school gymnasium in January, where each group was able to discuss and present their final project with family members, classmates, high-school faculty and local leaders.

“She was really sweet and she listened to all of our ideas and we actually talked with her a lot more in depth about it, so it wasn’t just like our normal presentation. We talked and talked with her, and it was really nice to actually see that she cared about our issue,” said Cash.

Holihan said that what’s unique about the Civics Action Project is that students are able to identify the steps to solve an issue, and actually implement those steps.

“(Students can) have a conversation with an actual adult that is knowledgeable on the topic, build a relationship, and then through that relationship, they hopefully get to that final point of advocating for the change,” he said.

The mental-health group is just one example of the Civics Action Project at work in Lynnfield. Topics shouldered by 14 other student groups including technology addiction, with students Abraham Chehab, Ethan Francis, Ryan Nguyen, Arash Saini and Owen White creating a video to bring awareness to how technology addiction increases anxiety.

Another group advocated for trees to be planted on the school property to combat the deforestation happening in Lynnfield, due to the increase in people who want to move into the town.

The group held a bake sale to raise money to purchase the trees with each tree costing about $400. Adriana Buccilli, who is also in the Tree Club at Lynnfield High, said her group worked with Department of Public Works (DPW) Director John Tomasz.

Tomasz told the group he would get five trees to plant and would bring in people to help plant them on the school grounds. The Tree Club’s goal is to plant one tree a year.

The rest of the sophomore class began their projects after returning from winter break in January.

The Civic Actions Project’s goal is for each student, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, language status, religion, education, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disabilty, to be exposed to civic education. The projects must be culturally relevant, help to identify students’ civic identities, and apply their knowledge, skills, and competencies that are necessary to be an informed and engaged citizen that can participate in civics.

By the end of 2022, all public-school districts in Massachusetts must be implementing this project into their curriculum.