Ridgewood News

By Darius Amos

They’ve navigated the corridors of the county jail, tested the acumen of top-flight health care professionals and even grilled Bergen’s top executive with an assortment of questions.

But for the 20 students who made up the inaugural Ridgewood High School (RHS) Teen LEADS class, the most difficult assignment over the past eight months was to formulate answers to a question that has puzzled this municipality for years: How can civic participation in Ridgewood be improved?

Last Wednesday, the group of mostly RHS sophomores and juniors presented their findings of a months-long project addressing that question, which was personally issued by Mayor Paul Aronsohn last fall. Their research into local government was far from the typical “how a bill becomes a law” examination – their work included lengthy studies of a decade’s worth of election results, original surveys issued to village residents and an analysis of the raw data that was gathered.

“I’m impressed with how this turned out,” Aronsohn told the students. “This was an idea, and we didn’t know what it would look like [at the conclusion]. It took courage and vision, and you really made this happen.”

Teen LEADS is a spin-off of the original Bergen LEADS, a county-wide civic leadership program for adults. Bergen LEADS was created in 2007 by members of the Volunteer Center of Bergen County, who fashioned lessons learned from the larger Leadership New Jersey seminar into a local curriculum.

Among the many Bergen LEADS graduates is Village Manager Roberta Sonenfeld, who was one of the main driving forces that brought the LEADS program to RHS. Sonenfeld also highlighted the support of RHS Principal Tom Gorman, club coordinator and sociology teacher Jenna Wilson and Bergen LEADS co-director Lynne Algrant.

Over the past year, the students participated in on-site classes, meeting with Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli at the county jail in Hackensack and speaking with doctors at The Valley Hospital. In addition to meeting with Ridgewood’s mayor on Government Day, the LEADS class spent time with Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan.

“This is such a superb first class. This class would not let Donovan go, and they challenged her,” Sonenfeld said. “For those of us who are passionate about LEADS, this has been great, and we had a great first class.”

Ridgewood’s Teen LEADS, the only one of its kind in the county, was tested as a pilot program over this past school year and received funding from the Volunteer Center and the Ridgewood Education Foundation. Entry into the program was based on student applications, and the same methods will be used to grant entry to those wishing to participate next year.

Gorman indicated that school officials will consider introducing LEADS as a full-time class after the 2014-15 year. And once the test period at RHS is completed, Bergen LEADS volunteers hope to expand the teen program to other high schools.

The challenge

Students detailed their presentation last week for Aronsohn, Sonenfeld and Councilwoman Gwenn Hauck, among other audience members, in the Sydney V. Stoldt Courtroom.

The team formed three separate subcommittees that tackled Aronsohn’s question, dubbed the Mayor’s Challenge, from different angles, explained LEADS member Deborah Frank. The first group researched civic participation through voter turnout.

Students learned that the percentage of voter turnout in municipal elections has increased between 2004 and 2012, with the exception of 2006. In that year, they noted, “the lowest turnout percentage (7.94 percent of registered voters) of all years examined was recorded.”

In comparison, the 2010 and 2012 council elections yielded 22 and 23 percent voter turnout, respectively.

Numbers from the local elections, however, pale in comparison when studied alongside statistics from general elections. In 2010, 49 percent of Ridgewood voters participated in the general election, while 64 percent went to the polls in November 2012, a Presidential election year.

After compiling election numbers, a second group created a 15-question, community involvement survey that was disseminated to Ridgewood residents in a number of locations and methods. Committee members handed out paper surveys at a supermarket, Ridgewood Earth Day and during a Let’s Get Acquainted senior brunch. Electronic versions were distributed via the school district website and E-newsletter.

A total of 144 surveys were returned, and respondents ranged in age from 18 to 85 years old. The average participant was a female in the 45 to 54 age bracket, reported student Katy Wong, adding that most of the survey takers expressed interest in local politics but were currently not involved.

She also revealed that the group found a gap between the non-native English speaking population and the non-native English speakers who responded to the survey. Of the completed surveys that were submitted, 142 were from residents whose primary language is English, while only two represented other languages.

“The main reasons given for lack of participation/involvement in community affairs were not having enough time and being low in confidence about knowledge of local issues and efficacy in the decision-making process,” the group noted.

In its summary, the third committee concluded that “there is a disconnect between the value constituents place on national election and that which they place on local elections” and “most people expressed interest in local affairs but were mostly inactive in their involvement,” among other findings.

“Identifying what gets people involved was also another difficulty Teen LEADS worked to understand. We have come to the conclusion that there is definitely a desire to understand our local government and get involved; however, timing and access to information is a major issue,” the group reported.

The lessons

Based on its research and findings, the Teen LEADS group offered final conclusions and recommendations to members of the village government. The response read, in part: “The community must find a way to reach people and raise awareness so that county and local elections are just as significant in their effects on the individual as national elections are, if not more.

“It is clear that some demographics in Ridgewood were not reached … We expect that these groups are often overlooked or not properly reached by the village services. In order to reach the most people in the community, the village should find ways to reach the language and age groups.”

“We feel that it’s very important to us to make it known to the population, through newspapers or anything else, that the local government does have an important role in everybody’s lives,” added LEADS member Jack Hadfield.

Aronsohn applauded the group for its efforts and its conclusions, referring to the students as “trailblazers.” He also praised them for recognizing the importance of local government.

“National and state government have big decisions to make, but right here are the meat and potatoes issues,” the mayor said. “These are the issues that really affect people on a day-to-day basis. You now have an appreciation with that.”

The mayor also noted the students’ struggle to connect with everyone, with people’s time and other commitments often interfering. He said the village must accept the task to find various ways to reach the residents.

David Caiafa suggested that solutions should “encompass parents,” many of whom move to Ridgewood for the quality education. Pamphlets or other literature that explains local government could be distributed to and encourage adults to get children involved in community efforts.

“It’s a cycle that will get people involved,” Caiafa said. “There are many pockets of populations … It’s important to take people in different walks of like and bring them together.”

According to Alexandra Ramos, her family members have been inspired to learn about local government simply through her involvement with the LEADS course.

“As a result of participating in Teen LEADS, my dad actually voted in the municipal election,” said Ramos, who added that she encouraged her father to research the issues behind the election. “I thought it was great that we had a little impact.”

E-mail: amos@northjersey.com