PASCO -- Nearly three years ago, a speech by then-newly elected President Obama inspired Jared Costanzo to become involved in student government.
Now the 17-year-old Pasco student is working on giving 56,000 students a voice in local government.
The Student Voice Project, founded by Costanzo and a fellow Chiawana High School senior, wants to provide political representation for all students in the Educational Service District 123, which covers Southeastern Washington.
The group's inaugural meeting is at 10 a.m. today at the Richland Library. Anyone is welcome, but only students can speak, he said.
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The fledgling political group is organized entirely by students. No teachers or other adults are involved, nor will they be, Costanzo said.
The SVP was founded this summer by Costanzo and his classmate Le'Ana Freeman.
They since have added Sergey Gorbatyuk as executive director. He is the student body president at Pasco High and a student representative on the Pasco School Board.
Costanzo is the student body president at Chiawana, serves on the executive board of the Washington Association of Student Councils and is the student representative on the state Board of Education.
Both Costanzo and Gorbatyuk plan to study political science in college. Costanzo has his eye on law school after that. Gorbatyuk wants to go to business school. Both plan to get into politics.
Freeman was out of town this week and couldn't be reached.
News reports of student protests in Chile inspired Costanzo to start SVP. Hearing about students rallying for their education in the streets made him wonder how much of a voice students have here.
He came to realize they have none outside of their own schools and decided to start a group that would include students from many districts.
"Think big," Gorbatyuk said with a grin.
And so Costanzo contacted students and principals in the 23 school districts of the region. Response from faraway districts has been slow so far, but that probably has something to do with starting his effort during summer break, he said.
Several students from Kennewick and Richland already have filed as candidates for the group's board of directors that so far is led only by Pasco students.
"I'm sure there will be more once they know what it actually is we're doing," Costanzo said.
Setting up a lobbying group for students is what they're doing.
Policy makers don't visit the schools enough and don't know how students feel, Costanzo said. The group seeks to change that.
The ultimate goal is for school boards and city councils in Southeastern Washington to have to consider the opinion of the SVP -- i.e. of the many students it represents -- before making decisions on elections, bonds or other matters affecting students.
The students hope to gain clout by speaking up in council and school board meetings, and contacting schools.
They also want to introduce themselves to community leaders through Kiwanis and Rotary Club gatherings.
As the three key members of the group are seniors, they will have to reach out to younger students to ensure the group can exist past next summer.
Interest overall is promising. The group's Facebook page on Thursday showed 32 students had confirmed they would attend the first meeting. Another 22 said they would maybe attend.
Interested students can contact the group by searching for "Student Voice Project" on Facebook or going to studentvoiceproject.weebly.com.
-- Jacques Von Lunen: 582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org