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Unique Collaboration Promotes Active Citizenship for Loudoun Youth

By the end of the spring semester, 130 middle school students from Sterling, Va., will have hands-on experience addressing two critical health issues within their communities: lack of healthy food and lack of opportunities for outdoor activity.

Thanks to a collaboration between Morven Park (a 1,000-acre historic site just north of Leesburg) and Loudoun County Public Schools, the students are participating in a pilot program that augments their standard in-class civics curriculum. The Student Citizenship Project is part of Morven Park’s new CivicsNOW! initiative, a program designed to create dynamic learning experiences that provide models for being active and educated citizens.

The anticipated outcome – which will be celebrated on June 4 at Morven Park – will be basket loads of freshly grown vegetables the kids will donate to a local food bank and one mile of a newly cleared and marked hiking trail for everyone in the community to enjoy.

“Our CivicsNOW! programs are designed to involve adults and students in the democratic process and to reignite their sense of public duty,” explained Morven Park Director of Civics Programs Abby Pfisterer. “The Student Citizenship Project does this through service learning, which requires students to take an active and thoughtful role in solving community problems.”

Based on the success of the pilot, the program will grow to provide these opportunities to greater numbers of 8th-graders throughout Loudoun County over the next several years, building a model that can be replicated nationwide.

During the students’ first visit to Morven Park in February, the morning began with a message reinforcing their classroom civics curriculum; most specifically, the concept of “civic responsibility” and the role of individuals to foster positive change. Half were given the challenge of addressing problems of access to healthy food. The others considered the need for access to natural settings for physical activity. Led by 30 volunteer mentors from local non-profits, businesses, and government, the students researched which vegetables grow in Virginia, how much yield those vegetables can provide within a 4-ft. by 12-ft. garden plot, what tools they will need to blaze the hiking trails, and what materials they will need to maximize the hikers’ experience.

Over the remaining three visits to Morven Park this semester, the gardeners will amend soil, plant seedlings, provide protection from grazing deer, and harvest and pack vegetables for donation to Loudoun Interfaith Relief. The trail builders will identify and remove invasive species, replace them with native plants, clear paths through the hilly forest, determine where markers should go and what they should indicate, and write text for future signage describing the surrounding wildlife habitats.

“Throughout the process, the mentors will encourage the students to collaborate, negotiate, problem-solve, deliberate, and compromise, maintaining respect and civility throughout the process … all essential skills of citizenship that we want students to gain from this program,” said Pfisterer.

During the final visit on June 4, students and local government officials will conduct an opening ceremony for the trails and present the harvested food to the food bank. Parents and the public will be invited to see the students’ work and to be the first to hike the new trail.

One of the trail heads and the raised vegetable beds are located at Morven Park’s “Turkey Hill Farm.” This demonstration garden area also serves as the home for the “pardoned” White House turkeys, “Popcorn” and “Caramel,” as well as heritage-breed turkeys of the type once raised in that same spot.

Morven Park is a 1,000-acre historic site that offers educational and recreational programming to the public and is operated by the Westmoreland Davis Memorial Foundation. The Foundation was established by the wife of Westmoreland Davis, who served as governor of Virginia from 1918 to 1922. During their ownership of Morven Park in the early 1900s, the Davises turned the property into a model of agricultural efficiency.

Davis believed in the power of individuals to effect change, and was encouraged by farmers to run for governor after leading a successful effort to cap the price of agricultural lime. As governor, he increased educational opportunities in rural areas, improved rural roads, created the Commonwealth’s first executive budget, and reformed the prison system.