WITH THE Fourth of July, barbecued chicken and coolers of beer behind us, and a presidential election and local contests for City Council and school board in front of us, it seems like a good time to give a friendly wave to a national program that takes Alameda middle school students to Washington, D.C., for a week in order to foster understanding of government and encourage civic participation.
Started in Alameda at Lincoln Middle School nine years ago by teacher Kevin Gorham — who has since moved to Encinal High — Close Up allows students to witness the history of our nation and the workings of our government up close and personal.
"Students come away with a new understanding and appreciation of how government operates," says Gorham , who went on a Close Up program when he was a high school student in Oakland. "I knew if I became teacher I wanted to bring that experience to my students."
In eight jam-packed days each spring, Alameda students travel to see major historical landmarks. "It's a whirlwind," says Lincoln Middle School teacher Peter Hill, who, with wife Kathryn Hill, also a Lincoln teacher, has helped lead the trip for the last eight years.
"It brings history and government alive for kids," said Peter Hill. "Outside of the classroom and outside the textbook."
This year, 118 eighth graders from Lincoln, Chipman, Wood and ACLC (Alameda Community Learning Center) participated. The Close Up students, says Kathryn Hill, start preparing for their travels in September, meeting weekly and doing extra schoolwork. Although there's no academic test to participate, students must attend regular meetings and fund raise to cover the $2,500 cost of the adventure.
Leaders from Close Up, a nonpartisan nonprofit formed in 1971, facilitate four days of the visit, but the Alameda teachers add four additional days, taking students to such places as the Newseum, a museum of news coverage, and the Lincoln Memorial, where they reenact Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream speech" on the steps where he originally delivered it in August 1963.
Alameda middle schoolers also visit Philadelphia, Pa., and Charlottesville and Jamestown, Va. They see such sights as the Liberty Bell, Thomas Jefferson's estate and the major museums, memorials and government buildings on the Capitol Mall.
"We even sat in the House while a law was being passed," said Dzanela Muminovic, 13, an Alamedan of Bosnian heritage who was born in Germany when her parents were in exile fleeing civil war.
"Basically we went through the timeline," said Muminovic. "They showed us where the Declaration of Independence was signed. Then they showed us where the laws were made ... and how the country evolved from this little thing into the United States. It was so cool."
"We were busy from seven in the morning to 10 at night," said 13-year-old Laura Rogers. "Every day was different."
She was particularly touched, she says, by an exhibit about Sept. 11, 2001, when the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers were attacked by terrorists. "The Newseum had a full wall of newspapers from that day from different cities around the world," said Rogers. "It was really cool to look through the history of that day and the different ways that people took it wherever they were."
"They each come away with something different," said Kathryn Hill. "A different thing that they remember that meant something to them."
Lizzie Dietz, 14, said she learned about many things, including how the news media aren't always right. She also learned about the importance of getting involved in community affairs. "If I don't do anything then the country might not move forward — but if everyone, not just me, participates then everything will turn out better in the long run."