Students tackle blighted properties

Chris Thelen/Staff
A former nightclub is now an eyesore on Lee Beard Way in Augusta. Through Project Citizen, students develop a solution to a town problem.

The signs of neglect are readily apparent on many of the houses around Cherry Tree Crossing.

Roofs have caved in. Many have broken windows. Several have holes smashed in their sides.

When the students who live nearby see them, they see even more -- abandoned properties infested with rats, prostitutes and violent criminal activity.

But through the efforts of Richmond County students, years of disregard could be replaced with their vision of redevelopment.

The participants in a leadership program through Augusta Richmond County Communities in Schools are competing in We the People: Project Citizen.

The curriculum challenges students to identify a problem in their community, research the issue, work through the political process to develop a solution and establish an action plan to fix it.

"Too many bad things happen in those abandoned houses," said Academy of Richmond County student Sebritney Cooper, 16, adding that rapes, murders and other sordid activities have taken place within them.

That's why she and her classmates identified the blighted properties as a problem that needs to be addressed.

The choice surprised Mary Crawford, the executive director of Community in Schools.

"I never ever paid attention or thought it was a problem," she said, but the students walk by those properties on the way to school.

In mid-December, the students began interviewing neighbors near the blighted properties, who they videotaped to document their research. Residents agreed the properties need to be cleaned up or torn down.

On Thursday, houses that had been vacant for years were boarded up, a sign that someone is taking note of the students' questions and filming, said Clinton Norman and Darlene Jones, of Communities in Schools.

Where abandoned houses stand, the students would rather see something that the community can enjoy, such as a recreation area.

Project Citizen provides the steps for students to research problems, map out solutions and bring them fruition.

The students have attended a Harrisburg Neighborhood Association meeting in which Mayor Deke Copenhaver spoke, and they plan to hold their own public forum to discuss blighted properties to get community input for their project.

The experience is new to them, Sebritney said, because adults don't usually listen to them.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Recognizing a need for pupils to learn about the workings of state and local government, We the People: Project Citizen was launched in 1996.

The Center for Civic Education and the National Conference for State Legislatures has seen the program expand to all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Guam and 65 countries, said Michael Fischer, the center's national director.

Since 1996, 1.6 million pupils in 30,000 U.S. classrooms have participated, he said.

The design of the program enables pupils to "take ownership" of the projects, which have been varied.

Mr. Fischer said the program requires pupils to develop plans to resolve problems they identify, but it doesn't require them to put the plans into action. Despite this, 60-70 percent do follow through with their plans.

For instance, pupils in Montana were called to testify before state lawmakers about bike helmets, and pupils in Florida urged lawmakers to expand drug-free zones.