Lawrence middle schools hold Model UN conference amid program’s uncertain future

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Lawrence middle schoolers held a citywide Model United Nations conference Friday as questions about the program’s future continue, following the school board’s approval of schedule and curriculum changes. 

Currently, work for Model UN, Future City and National History Day is done during a midday flex period, which was eliminated as part of curriculum and scheduling changes the school board approved Monday. The changes were made to implement a cut of 50 full-time staff members at the middle and high school levels, estimated to save $3.25 million as part of next year’s budget cuts. 

Students from West Middle School invited district administrators and board members to the school for Friday’s Model UN conference, but none could attend the event. The students said they wanted to give them a chance to see firsthand the positives of the activity, as numerous West and Southwest middle school students worked alongside some peers from Bishop Seabury Academy and Liberty Memorial Central Middle School. Billy Mills Middle School’s program opted not to attend because they are doing online Model UN this year.

In a letter to the board sent before Monday’s meeting, West eighth graders Joey Clossen and Drew Miller advocated for the programs to remain as is. 

“Our biggest concern is that the proposed changes to scheduling will no longer allow teachers to teach Model United Nations, Future Cities, and National History Day, which have been proven significantly academically beneficial to students,” they wrote. 

In Kansas, gifted education is a mandated special education service, said West’s gifted teacher, Jessica Miescher-Lerner. Because gifted programming for middle schoolers currently takes place during the flex period, those teachers have been concerned about how they will do their jobs within the new system.

“One of the things that Dani and I have been talking about, and also our other gifted counterparts, is what are we doing during the day? That’s what hasn’t been explained to us,” Miescher-Lerner said, referring to Danielle Lotton-Barker, Southwest Middle School gifted teacher.

Although students who aren’t in the gifted program participate in Model UN, Future City and National History Day, the gifted teachers run those programs.

Lotton-Barker said Southwest’s principal, Carissa Miles, has been helpful in trying to find creative ways to keep the programs despite the elimination of the flex period.

“I truly appreciate that she seems to understand and support the need for these opportunities for kids,” Lotton-Barker said. “I just feel like if we’re creative, we can figure our way out of this without cutting this out of kids’ school days.”

District spokesperson Julie Boyle said the district is still discussing the schedule and questions that staff members have raised about it. 

One option could be adding Model UN and Future City to the curriculum as elective classes, like Yearbook or AVID. Miescher-Lerner said gifted staff have looked into that option.

Another option could be to make these programs clubs. This sparked concern from teachers and students about competition between other activities, such as student council or athletics.

Boyle said that, like other activities, if enough students are interested, they can find a staff member to sponsor the activity as well as a time and place to meet. 

Model UN and Future City are distinct from other clubs and activities, students argued, in that they offer a more in-depth curriculum that is most similar to other classes. They also offer hands-on experience in problem-solving and in-depth research, something that students said is unique to those programs.

“It definitely offers more of a look into real-world problems than my other classes,” Southwest seventh grader Eloise Marsh said.

Students and teachers said that Model UN allows them to look at issues from diverse perspectives and hash out disagreements respectfully, something that was on display Friday.

“For kids to really look at what is happening in the world and what are different perspectives on that,” Lotton-Barker said. “Don’t just repeat soundbites that you hear, but look at it, and then try to look at it from a perspective that’s not yours. Yeah, and be respectful in how you do that. I think that’s so valuable.”

At Monday’s board meeting, Chris Storm, a mentor for Southwest’s Future City program, argued that doing Future City entirely outside of class would hurt the program, which consistently attends national competitions. Lotton-Barker estimated that Southwest’s Future City program has brought in at least $15,000 in prize money, which goes toward supplies and tools used by students in the program, in art classes and more. 

“There is no way to do it as an extracurricular outside of the normal school day,” Storm said. “We do [work outside of class] and the period, and we just squeeze it in.” 

Students expressed the importance of learning applicable real-world skills in politics, public speaking, international relations and current events.

“It’s important that we have knowledge of current events, and I think Model UN allows us to do that better than any class can,” Clossen said.

Another benefit of Model UN, students said, is that it allows them the chance to practice public speaking skills. 

“It definitely helps with overall confidence,” said Gillian Sellet, a Free State High School sophomore who helped with the conference Friday. “I think knowing how to speak in a public setting also just encourages participation in class and school in general. I started high school coming out of COVID, and so I don’t think I would have been able to participate in my classes as well if I hadn’t already had that public speaking experience.”

Lotton-Barker said she has students who, despite anxiety about public speaking, pushed themselves outside of their comfort zones on Friday.

“Some of the kids who are with me here today are really anxious about this, but they also want to be good at it,” she said. “So they’re willing to take the risk and try new things, which, middle school is the perfect place to do that, right? Try new stuff. That’s what it’s all about is exploring things.”

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Cuyler Dunn (he/him), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. He is a graduate of Lawrence High School where he was the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Budget, and was named the 2022 Kansas High School Journalist of the Year. Read more of his work for the Times here.

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