Teens Take the Lead at City Hall

Information reprinted with permission of the Courier Times, local newspaper New Castle, Indiana www.thecouriertimes.com 

Teens take the lead at city hall

Posted: Tuesday, April 5, 2016 6:00 am

A group of New Castle High School students got an extra day out of class the Monday after Spring Break. They weren’t taking the day off from learning, though.

A dozen NCHS seniors partnered with New Castle city department heads to find out what it takes to keep the city’s gears moving every day.

The New Castle Breakfast Optimist Club has sponsored ‘Mayor For A Day’ every spring since the late 1990s. Optimist coordinator Mark Herbkersman worked with New Castle High School government teachers James Thurston and Bill Wesseler to help local teens get a peek behind the curtain of local government at work.

“The Mayor For a Day Program gives participants a new appreciation for their hometown, and helps them to feel a sense of pride in their community,” Thurston said. “Actually seeing what goes on on a daily basis is much more interesting and memorable than anything the students might simply read in a textbook about local government.”

Thurston said that students who take part in the program leave with a greater appreciation for how government actually works in a real-life setting. Someone on the city staff has to fix any problems that pop up before they interrupt service for the community.

Herbkersman used a real world example of the power outage that affected much of the city this weekend. He pointed out that the wastewater treatment plant could have shut down if city workers hadn’t been prepared and kept everything running the way they did.

“We’ve seen some interesting things over the years through this, and we’ve noticed that students have learned an awful lot,” Herbkersman said Monday morning in the city council chambers. “There’s things that go on behind the scenes that you have no clue about, you just go about your day and expect everything to work, but it doesn’t always work.” 

Even though it is called ‘Mayor For a Day,’ the program teaches students about more than just the duties of the city’s chief executive. The seniors volunteer to be considered for the limited number of spots and then randomly chose to see which department head they would work with Monday.

Kelsey Hines got to work with Mayor Greg York. The mayor said the city department heads deserve the credit for making the city services run so well every day.

“They are very responsible, very skilled,” York told the students. “They make my job easy.”

Senior Layni Becker was street superintendent. Makayla Wright was the head of the city cemetery. Cody Werking was the EMS chief and Anthony Saylor followed the director of public works. David McClendon followed the police chief, Jordan May worked in the utility office, Haley Lee was the mayor’s assistant and Shelby Huffman shadowed the fire department chief. Chelsea Goble learned about the water plant. Emily Ferrell was the mayor’s human resources assistant and Raul Banda served as building inspector.

“I think it’s a great experience for people like me that want to be at a high position,” Banda said. “It helps out a lot to see what the people in the city actually do for you.”

Banda has family experience of working with the inspector’s office, so he was excited to work side-by-side and learn more about the administrative process. Banda said he might get into law after graduating high school this year.

New Castle Police Chief Brad Catron led the group for a tour through his department, showing them standard-issue police equipment, the stolen property and evidence rooms and taking them by the office of their school resource officer. The luck of the draw saw McClendon shadowing Catron throughout the day.

“I wanted to be police chief, but we drew out of a hat. It was pretty lucky,” McClendon said.

McClendon said he was interested in learning what Catron has to deal with day-to-day. The New Castle senior said he’s been looking at law enforcement as a possible career path after graduating.

McClendon thinks now would be a good time for next year’s seniors to start researching the department roles on www.cityofnewcastle.net to find out who everyone is and a little of their background. The city’s website can also give students and other residents a better idea of what each job entails.

“The students are always amazed at just how much actually goes into keeping New Castle running smoothly. They get a real sense of how local government is actually carried out,” Thurston said. “Many times, without prior knowledge, students might think a job within the city might be boring, but when they are paired up with the city department heads, the students are amazed at just how much actually goes on.”

Mayor York agreed. He said it means a lot that the school and the Optimists continue to keep the program going.

“I think they leave with a broader perspective of what it really takes to make the city run. I’m always excited to see what sort of feedback they have,” York said. “It’s always fun... These are the kids that want to move forward with their life. We always have a good time with them.”