Learning to change the world: Amherst fifth graders engaged with issue community engagement

Bobby Wells walks his bike toward Amherst Town Hall with others in his fifth grade class. They addressed a mock Town Council meeting, calling for safer biking in Amherst.

Bobby Wells walks his bike toward Amherst Town Hall with others in his fifth grade class. They addressed a mock Town Council meeting, calling for safer biking in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—

Logan Lakota and Casey Hanna, 5th grade students  from Fort River school, along with the rest of their class, present their findings during a mock town council meeting on how to   reduce fossil fuels by promoting safer biking opportunities in Amherst.

Logan Lakota and Casey Hanna, 5th grade students from Fort River school, along with the rest of their class, present their findings during a mock town council meeting on how to reduce fossil fuels by promoting safer biking opportunities in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—

Walker Austin, a  5th grade student  from Fort River school, along with the rest of their class, present the classes  findings during a mock town council meeting on how to   reduce fossil fuels by promoting safer biking opportunities in Amherst. Left is Ana Devlin Gauthier, Lynn Griesemer and Andy Steinberg, members of the Amherst Town Council.

Walker Austin, a 5th grade student from Fort River school, along with the rest of their class, present the classes findings during a mock town council meeting on how to reduce fossil fuels by promoting safer biking opportunities in Amherst. Left is Ana Devlin Gauthier, Lynn Griesemer and Andy Steinberg, members of the Amherst Town Council. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—

Walker Austin, a Fort River school fifth grader, answers a question at a mock Town Council meeting.

Walker Austin, a Fort River school fifth grader, answers a question at a mock Town Council meeting. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 06-08-2024 12:35 PM

AMHERST — Riding a bicycle from home to Fort River School can be a scary experience, says fifth grader Logan Lakota, with obstacles such as trash cans and mailboxes along the roads and sidewalks, and approaching vehicles that can’t be always be seen.

“You never know if a car’s behind you,” Logan told four members of the Town Council during a recent mock council session, explaining what is most frightening about the trek.

It’s a similar concern for Casey Hanna, who enjoys riding his bicycle to school, but observes it is difficult when traveling over a broken-up sidewalk.

Logan and Casey are in a class making an appeal to “Reduce Fossil Fuels by Biking in Amherst.” Earlier, they appealed to the Town Services and Outreach Committee, asking for a protected bicycle lane on Belchertown Road, improvements on Pelham Road, and other changes that would benefit Amherst families through safer transportation options.

The students in Ana Paul’s class are among three fifth grade classes at Fort River engaged in a Civic Literacy and Organizing Project promoting various measures at the local and state level. The other classes’ projects are supporting legislative bills to reduce single-use plastics, and working to increase the state’s minimum wage.

Even though there are costs and challenges to their proposal, the students believe they will pay off, especially in advance of the new elementary school opening in the fall of 2026. Many of the students rode their bicycles to Town Hall, though with an escort up Route 9 from an Amherst police bike officer.

“We’re trying to get the town to prioritize separate bike lanes,” said fifth grader Jonah Goren-Watts, who also asked that councilors revisit the Amherst Bicycle and Pedestrian Network Plan from five years ago.

Fifth grader Walker Austin said fossil fuel reduction is important, too. “We’re pushing that it’s not about money, it’s about people’s safety,” Walker said.

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The class talked to Tori Halloran, an outreach coordinator for Safe Routes to School, Department of Public Works Superintendent Gulford Mooring and the Town Services and Outreach Committee, with other requests being extending the duration of flashing lights in school zones and creating more 20 mph safety zones.

The students have written letters and developed a website with the goals.

“We are here because we want to reduce the use of fossil fuels in order to protect the planet and our futures. One major way that kids can reduce fossil fuels is by biking and walking whenever we can,” a letter reads. They also created advocacy posters, such as “pedal your way into action” and “say no to driving, say yes to biking.”

Council President Lynn Griesemer was joined by Ana Devlin Gauthier, George Ryan and Andy Steinberg in listening. Griesemer ran the meeting like a regular meeting, having the students introduce themselves as making public comment and printed out an agenda, as some parents sat inside the Town Room observing the proceedings.

“This was an amazingly well-researched presentation,” Griesemer said.

“Your presentation is an extremely helpful way to focus on this,” Steinberg said. “We so much appreciated your presentation then and today.”

Addressing income inequality

The other two classes recently set up booths at the Jones Library to gather signatures for petitions, and will also be meeting with both Sen. Jo Comerford and Rep. Mindy Domb.

In Tim Austin’s class, where a $20 state minimum wage is being proposed, students began with writing an essay on how social changes happen. Several of the topics were then made into videos by the students, before a vote settled on addressing income inequality as the class project, rather than legislation related to gun violence.

Fifth grader Ian Kim noted the campaign title is “Time for $20,” with flyers distributed with a QR code that can be scanned in support of the Senate and House bills.

Fifth grader Hazel Linn said the class made a list of things to do, including creating card-stock coins that could be signed and deposited into a cardboard figure, representing a piggy bank, as a visual representation.

“I think overall we did a good job with it,” Hazel said.

The fifth graders were also invited to spend part of a day at the high school, informing students there about their campaign.

“That went really well,” said fifth grader Sam Schmeiser. “Basically we went over to the high school and set up our stuff and did our petitioning. I’m pretty sure we had well over 500 signatures.”

Adelyn Tease said the older students, especially those who have summer jobs, see the benefit. “A lot of high schoolers appreciate that $20 would help them over the summer,” Adelyn said.

“People need to help raise the minimum wage because many people suffer from not getting the money they need from their minimum wage jobs,” Adelyn said.

Julius Cosby said there are societal benefits, too. “Some people can’t pay their bills so they become homeless, and have to live on the streets,” Julius said.

Some of the students have already spoken to Domb, who gave them information about why some small businesses might oppose the measure. Still, she offered support.

“She said it was great we were working on this cause because raising it would help the entire community,” Hazel said.

Plastic reduction

In Samantha Comeau’s fifth grade class, students are supporting legislation that would ban or reduce the use of certain single-use plastics.

Fifth grader Anna Sheldon said students recently set up at the Amherst Farmers Market, where people showed support by signing a petition. Their project includes a large board, representing the sea, with illustrations of plastic attached to it being replaced by illustrations of fish signed by community members. This visual petition is also supplemented with a letter writing campaign to the state Senate’s Ways and Means Committee.

Judah Busacker said the legislation could require stores to charge 10 cents whenever plastic bags are used. “It was very successful because of those signing it and people interested in reading the bill,” Judah said.

The event at the Jones Library included a bake sale. Nate Garrett-Peltier said that students were asking for money to benefit Ocean Cleanup, an organization that did a major expedition that towed out garbage from the seas.

Students were careful to not have plastic at the bake sale, using cake pops in which confections were attached to Popsicle sticks, rather than having cake placed on plates and served with plastic utensils.

“With plastic pollution, you can’t lose by making a donation,” Judah said.

Continued advocacy

As part of the projects this spring, students have also been working with local hop hop artist Tem Blessed in creating and recording music that will be connected to their campaigns.

Blessed said he talks to the fifth graders about how music has played roles in various social change movements and can be critical to their success. 

“It’s going to be fun for them while delivering a message and having a big energy feeling to it,” Blessed said. “I want them to have a hopeful message that will leave the audience inspired.”