Thursday, Nov. 25, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Today’s high school students are used to adults writing them off as flip-flop wearing tech junkies more concerned with texting and their iPods than with politics and the economy.
But attendees of this year’s Sun Youth Forum showed themselves to be intelligent, well-spoken leaders of tomorrow.
About 1,000 juniors and seniors from 51 high schools across the valley gathered Tuesday at the Las Vegas Convention Center to discuss Nevada’s most pressing issues. They debated policy, brainstormed the budget and reflected on the recent elections.
The daylong forum allowed students to voice their opinions and learn from their peers. It also gave them a chance to prove their critics wrong.
“We live in the same place as the adults,” said Ryan Call, 17, of Foothill High School. “We care about what happens too.”
“Even though we don’t vote, we matter,” said Zhan Okuda-Lim, a Valley High senior.
The forum began 54 years ago as the brainchild of then-Sun Publisher Hank Greenspun, who worried that adults weren’t listening closely enough to young people. What started as an experimental meeting of 96 students has blossomed into a prestigious event that taps into the pulse of the state’s youth. The discourse has shifted over the years from how far to go on a first date to how to prevent teen suicide.
Topics the students tackled were as diverse as the students themselves. In one room, the high schoolers debated the merits of a high-speed train from Las Vegas to Southern California. In another, they discussed whether parents should be held accountable for teenagers skipping school. Students in a third room talked about smoking.
“The adage that children should be seen and not heard doesn’t apply here,” said event organizer Brian Cram, director of the Greenspun Family Foundation and a former superintendent of the Clark County School District.
Moderators were drawn from throughout the community and included Sun Publisher and Editor Brian Greenspun, Rep. Shelley Berkley, Greenspun Media Group Chairman Danny Greenspun, U.S. District Court Judge Philip Pro and several UNLV administrators, law enforcement officials, business leaders and Clark County School Board members.
School Board President Terri Janison led a conversation about education and instructed the students to face one another in a circle. She kept mostly out of the conversation, which bounced from homework load to graduation standards to student rights.
The two dozen teens in the “School Days” session seemed to agree that schools and teachers put too much emphasis on test scores. Anita Albanese, a 16-year-old Silverado High student, complained that most students have time to take only one elective.
“Some people gain a lot more knowledge by electives, not by the five mandated classes,” she argued. “Maybe they could have been the next Picasso or President Obama.”
The majority of students attending said education is their foremost concern. They said they worry about the poor performance of Nevada schools and lamented the fact that lawmakers and voters are not willing to invest more in children’s learning. They expect the situation to get worse as state officials tackle Nevada’s deficit.
“We have very few taxes,” said Ashley Roberts, 17, a Green Valley High School senior. “We’re going to grow up to be leaders of the future and run things. If they are not investing in us, they’re basically not investing in themselves.”
An informal poll conducted by the Sun found that 39 percent of students favored raising taxes to close the state’s budget gap, while 22 percent advocated for cuts in programs or services, and 39 percent wanted officials to create a state lottery to fund education.
In a session titled “America,” students debated national issues such as immigration and health care reform. The teens remained respectful even as the discussion grew heated.
“I was an illegal immigrant until not so long ago,” said Saleena Sipper, of Clark High. “It took five years to get citizenship. The people working to become citizens should get health care.”
One student, whose parents are in the United States illegally, said “most illegal immigrants do not want to be here. They want to be in their countries, with their families. They come here for necessity.”
Desert Pines High student Marisa Denton represented the opposite view. “If you’re a border jumper, you shouldn’t be covered,” she said. She maintained her position despite disagreement from other students.
Of the 28 teens in the room, five favored health care reform. Another half dozen said they were undecided.
“It kind of advocates for abortion and for me, that’s a big no-no,” 17-year-old Las Vegas High student Tricia Pineda said. “And you’re paying for other people’s health care. While you’re working your butt off, they’re on the street smoking.”
Zach Rajkovac of Legacy High said his soccer coach had to wait six months for knee surgery in Great Britain, which has national health care. His mom in Las Vegas received similar surgery two days after her injury.
Down the hall, Brian Greenspun, who moderated a “Home in Nevada” session, posed a question to his group: Why does Nevada consistently make the bottom of good lists and the top of bad lists?
Some teens cited the state’s education problems, while others said officials need to raise taxes to improve community services. Alexis Gallagher, of Western High, argued there isn’t enough for young people to do, especially at night.
Several students maintained that Las Vegas, a young city compared with historic East Coast communities, is still finding itself. A few took a more cynical approach, saying that Nevadans are selfish.
“People look out for themselves,” one student argued. “People in Nevada have given up.”
“Have you given up?” Greenspun asked her. She shook her head “no.”
“We’ll that’s why we’re here, to figure out how we can move up,” Greenspun explained.
Though the bulk of the day entailed intense discussions and debates, the students had some time to kick back and be kids. Organizers held a hip-hop dance off during lunch and the dance crew Jabbawockeez performed. Students rushed the stage, screamed for the dancers and maneuvered to catch T-shirts the artists launched into the crowd.
While they were visibly wowed by the entertainment, most students said the highlight of the Youth Forum was hearing other teens’ thoughts and sharing their own views.
“I learned to be open minded,” said Amy Ortega, 17, of Las Vegas High. “People made good points, so it made me realize I need to think about the other side of things.”
“I was usually scared to voice my opinion,” said Nicole Kowalewski, of Liberty High. “Now, I’m not.”