The Youth for Justice project shows students how citizenship in a democracy works.
By WILLIAM K. ALCORN
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Penny Wells, an American history, social studies and honors classes teacher at Volney Rogers Junior High, is the Ohio VFW Teacher of the Year for Citizenship Education.
Wells represented VFW District 8 in statewide competition, winning over teachers from the VFW's other 11 districts in the state. District 8 represents Mahoning, Trumbull, Portage and Summit counties.
Wells, who came to Youngstown in 1969, taught at Princeton Junior High School until it closed in 1995 and has been at Volney Rogers since.
The VFW recognized Wells for promoting citizenship education in her classroom. She was nominated for the award by Betty L. Greene, social studies supervisor for Youngstown City Schools.
The award was presented to Wells by William L. Kohn, commander of VFW Transportation Post 3007, which sponsored Wells; Maeouida Kohn, president of VFW 3007's Ladies Auxiliary; and post quartermaster, Frank A. Russo.
Activities: Wells' citizenship-related classroom activities include involving students each year in Youth for Justice, a program of the Ohio Center for Law-Related Education sponsored by the Ohio Bar Association, state Attorney General and Ohio Supreme Court. She said she limits participants to six because she provides transportation for the students, and six is all her car can hold.
Under the YFJ program, students choose an issue -- in Volney Rogers' case the issue is the accessibility of tobacco to youth. The students research the topic, arrive at a solution, and formulate a plan of action.
Wells said her students found that teens are more likely to use tobacco products if they can purchase them themselves and if they are displayed on the front of store counters rather than behind the counter, forcing teens to have to ask the clerk.
Their initial plan was to petition Youngstown City Council for a city law that would ban open displays of tobacco and prohibit the sale of tobacco products in vending machines in public places frequented by youth.
They went to city council, but were advised by Law Director Robert Bush Jr. that they would be better served by taking their idea to the Ohio Legislature, Wells said.
Legislation: So, during the 2000 Summit of the Youth for Justice program in Columbus, Wells' students, ages 13 and 14, talked to Ron V. Gerberry of Austintown, then-state representative for 65th District; and state Reps. Robert F. Hagan, D-33rd, and Sylvester D. Patton Jr., D-64th, both of Youngstown; about getting legislation introduced to ban front-of-counter displays of tobacco products and vending machines that sell tobacco in places frequented by youths.
Wells said Patton encouraged the kids, and introduced House Bill 237 in the fall of 2000. "It was not quite what we wanted -- the bans were omitted, but it would triple fines for merchants who sell tobacco to minors," she said.
The bill went nowhere in 2000, was re-introduced 2001, but stayed in committee and was not debated.
Progress was made this year, however, and earlier this month Wells' six students testified in favor of the bill before the House Criminal Justice Committee. She said Patton told her the committee was very impressed with the students. "They were wonderful," Wells said.
Since then, the students have written everyone they could think of, including newspapers across the state and legislators and committee members, seeking support for the bill. Also, the students have asked for an amendment to include banning cigarette vending machines in public places frequented by teen-agers.
Educational: VFW officials said they promote the kind of hands-on citizenship education used by Wells, not just teaching from a textbook.
The YFJ project showed students how the governmental process works, Wells said.
"You knock on one door, and if its closed, you move on and try again someplace else. If it doesn't happen the first year, you try again next year. They are seeing first-hand how the Democratic process works, and sometimes how slowly it works."
"Not many people of any age, nevermind 13 and 14, have a chance to testify before a state legislative committee," she said.
They are also tuned into current events. This school year, after Sept. 11, the students made red, white and blue ribbons and sold then for 25 cents each. They earned "several hundred" dollars which they sent to four public schools in lower Manhattan that were closed for some time after the Trade Tower terrorist attacks, Wells said.
Another honor: Wells is also 2002 Teacher of the year for Youngstown City Schools, and a year ago was part of a middle school delegation made up of educators from around the country that went to China under the auspices of the People to People Ambassador Program.
"I feel very honored to have received the VFW award, the flag and the $50 check," she said. "Citizenship and the betterment of conditions in the United States has been the main focus of my life."