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Student leaders learn about state, propose changes in law
Lester Coleman (right) of Martinsville is shown with former Virginia Lt. Gov. John Hager during the Sorensen Institute programs. Coleman was chosen to participate in the recent institute’s High School Leaders Program at the University of Virginia. (Contributed photo)
Friday, August 17, 2012
By ASHLEY JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer
A group of high school students is hoping reforms it has proposed for Virginia’s enterprise zones will be enacted.
Lester Coleman of Martinsville was among the participants in the recent Sorensen Institute’s High School Leaders Program at the University of Virginia. Among other activities, the students were divided into groups which proposed pieces of legislation. Coleman’s group tackled reforming the state’s enterprise zones.
Currently, the state aids thriving economies, but the group’s research found that aid isn’t given to all struggling economies, he said. It was found that Martinsville receives help, but another struggling area, such as Petersburg, does not, he added.
An area can be designated as an Enterprise Zone if it meets a certain threshold of unemployment and poverty, while still attracting and maintaining business, according to Coleman.
The group proposed legislation that would implement a new system that would require a composite score based on rankings to determine which localities will be eligible for aid. The top 10 applicants would be designated as Virginia’s new enterprise zones, according to Coleman.
The rankings would be based on unemployment rates, poverty levels, quality of business plan, retail sales, vacant buildings and unused space, children on subsidized lunch and median household income, he said.
During the program, the students learned how to lobby and spoke with several Virginia lobbyists and delegates. Once the legislation was decided, the group had to try to get delegates and senators to support it, which they will continue to do, he said.
Coleman said the students are motivated by the fact that a few years ago, participants succeeded in pushing a piece of legislation through to become law.
Coleman, 16, formerly attended Carlisle School and now is a junior at Woodberry Forest School in Orange County. Out of 30 students from Virginia selected to participate in the High School Leaders Program, he was the only one from the Martinsville area, he said, adding that most of the others were from Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads area.
The program, held July 7-21, covered the history of Virginia government and the legislative process. The experience gave him three college credits from U.Va. and “a first hand view of what college is like” with the heavy workload and long class periods, he said.
The students listened to lectures, participated in a mock General Assembly, held class discussions and did a lot of reading.
Coleman was selected by his peers to give a speech at the ceremonial graduation on the final day of the program. He chose to speak about the experience and the diversity of the people that he met at the institute.
“Sorensen has made us more conscious of regional issues across the commonwealth and has made us want to be more involved. I feel like I have the tools to get involved. Sorensen has also equipped all of us with the tools we need to actually make a difference. These experiences have had such an effect on us that we want to contribute to this great tradition. We’ve decided, as a class, that we want to fundraise at least the amount of one student’s tuition for the 2013 High School Leaders Program,” he said in his speech.
“The best learning experience about this program has been the opportunity to meet individuals who might not see eye to eye with you. The Sorensen’s bipartisan confidentiality allowed for me to get to know a person at face value and not necessarily stereotype them with a political party. Another contributing factor to this was the wide-range of areas everyone came from. I know for one that I learned something special about each and every person,” he added.
Coleman’s eyes were opened to how “different areas have different needs and desires.” For instance, the students from Northern Virginia were concerned with health care while the other students were concerned about pumping money into businesses to help their regions’ economies rebound, Coleman said.
The students learned that the different concerns result from each region’s unique economy. Southside relies on manufacturing and textiles, rural portions of Virginia rely on farming and the Tidewater region relies on tourism and the military, he said.
Other issues touched on in the program was the division between the Republicans and the Democrats, the power of the majority and how politicians vote along party lines, he said.
Overall, the program inspired Coleman to be an active voter once he reaches voting age and be a candidate advocate by volunteering for a campaign, he said. However, he wasn’t inspired to ever run for political office, he added.
Coleman learned that “you do have a voice so don’t stay at home and not vote,” he said. It’s important to be active in politics and be enthusiastic, he added.
The program was open to all students who were at least 16 years of age or rising juniors. Graduating seniors also were eligible to participate.
Coleman is the son of James D. Coleman and Beverly Coleman of Martinsville.