Vermont’s Teen Planners Shine on National Stage

Manchester’s youth engagement project featured at the American Planning Association convention

For Immediate Release
May 14, 2009

GirlsandLee_260x244.jpgKrohn, Halligan, Hogan and Lavalley

Middlebury, VT — Conventional wisdom says that teenagers like to break the rules, not help to write them; that they care about video games and text messaging, not design standards and community character; that they are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

High school students in Manchester, VT have been upending those assumptions for two years, and last week they took their story to the national stage in a presentation at the American Planning Association (APA)’s annual conference in Minneapolis, MN.

"Planning Director Lee Krohn and the Orton Family Foundation have developed a program for involving high school students as voting members of the planning commission and other boards," said Carolyn Torma, Director of Education for the American Planning Association. "This is civic engagement that is direct, meaningful, and effective, as students who took on the challenge reported to planners."

High school seniors Campbell Halligan, who sits on the Design Review Board, Charlotte Hogan of the Development Review Board, and junior Megan Lavalley of the Planning Commission described their experiences as board members to an audience of nearly two-dozen people, along with Krohn.

The Orton Family Foundation convened an exploratory group of students, citizens, Town leaders and school staff in 2006 to create a model for youth engagement in local government. In 2007 Manchester’s Select Board authorized the appointment of two high school students to each of the Town’s boards and commissions: the Planning Commission, Development Review Board, Design Review Board, Parks & Recreation Committee, Conservation Commission, Energy Committee and Mark Skinner Library Board. Students from the local high school, Burr and Burton Academy, have since served as full voting members of all but two boards, which, for legal reasons, cannot allow minors to vote.

“The Foundation has always believed high school students can bring real value to their communities and for 10 years has worked to offer opportunities to begin developing life-long citizenship at this age,” commented Bill Roper, the Foundation’s President and CEO.

The American Planning Association’s annual conference drew 4,500 planners and featured a number of sessions on youth engagement, but few high school students attended and even fewer spoke directly about their experiences as members of planning boards and commissions. Halligan, Hogan and Lavalley told their audience about the ups and downs of board membership, including how they’ve learned to handle inquiries and pressure relating to cases before their boards; how board membership has heightened their sense of place and awareness of community; and how the experience is directly affecting their college and career choices. The audience responded enthusiastically, with a number of attendees indicating their interest in using the program as a model for youth engagement in their own towns.

“A couple of people…came up and just said things that made me feel like we changed people’s minds about youth involved in government,” Lavalley told the Manchester Journal after the conference.

According to Burr and Burton Service Learning Coordinator Lani Lovisa, who serves as an advisor to the students, the enthusiasm of their APA audience encouraged the students to work even harder to increase local interest now that they have returned home. “The most important thing the planners attending the conference gained was an affirmation that the youth in their communities are capable of and interested in participating in town government and local affairs,” said Lovisa. “The voices of the youth in a community should not only be valued, but are a vital and appropriate part of planning for the future.”

Now entering its third year, the program in Manchester is poised to appoint another round of students to boards, and it will continue to work on expanding opportunities for more youth to participate in local government and community organizations. A long-term goal is to help other communities start their own programs.

The Orton Family Foundation, based in Middlebury, Vermont, and Denver, Colorado, seeks to help small cities and towns discover and describe their heart and soul—the collective attributes that make communities unique—and build on those attributes in planning toward a vibrant, enduring future.

For More Information Contact:
John Barstow, Director of Communications
The Orton Family Foundation
PO Box 111
Middlebury, VT 05753