Student Union

With the support of school administration, city staff began visiting a local high school during lunch one day a week and formed a focus group of students. Participants from the drop-in soccer program were encouraged to attend and bring friends to these lunch meetings (for most students, the incentive of a free slice of pizza was reason enough to go).

It was at these meetings that the vision of the Student Union began to take shape. Teens were asked what they wanted a recreation club to include. What did they want to do after school? What field trips did they want to take? What did they need outside of the classroom to reach the end goal of graduation?

The students answered and city staff listened.

Teens wanted to play soccer, play basketball, learn to dance, go to movies, and visit amusement parks; in addition, each student needed 75 volunteer hours to graduate. Staff members now had a solid starting point.

A crucial question, though, came next—how can the city afford to offer these activities, and what can students afford to pay to participate?

Outlining The Program

Based on the number of students who qualified for free or reduced lunch at school, it was decided that membership dues had to be affordable. The proposed annual fee of $5 for city residents and $10 for non-residents was approved, as well as a $13,000 budget for the 2010-2011 school year. The funds covered staff salaries, operating costs, and activity expenses.

Prior to the start of the 2010 fall semester, city staff devised a simple schedule of Student Union activities during the first months of school. Programs included 3 days a week of intramural sports at the activity center (soccer, volleyball, and basketball), a half-day trip to a nearby mall, and two volunteer opportunities (a park clean-up project and helping at a community housing fair).

Word Spreads

Initially, recruiting teens to join the Student Union consisted of lunchtime visits to the high school with flyers and face-to-face promotion of activities. It didn’t take long for a handful of registered Student Union members to take over this responsibility. Students recruiting students and word-of-mouth proved to be the most effective means of enrolling new members.

Student effort combined with support from the faculty allowed numbers to slowly but steadily climb. The development group page using social media allowed staff members to continue to promote activities and reach out to even more local teens. This approach was hugely successful.

Teens take ownership of the Student Union program. Photo Courtesy City of Gaithersburg

As numbers and interest grew, however, so did the need for a bigger budget. Several fundraisers were organized to offer the trips and activities that members requested. Members have sold baked goods and glowsticks at local events, raked leaves, shoveled snow, and washed countless cars to earn more opportunities for field trips.

Student Union members continue to raise enough money to significantly defray program expenses and still afford to donate to worthy local and national causes and charities.

It’s been two years since the Student Union was first offered. Programs and interest continue to grow at a remarkable rate.

Teens can be a difficult demographic to engage and hold their interest. The Student Union format entrusts high-school students to assume responsibility for the success of a program, and holds them accountable to make it their own. It’s this sense of ownership that keeps members dedicated to the programs and devoted to the club.

Maura Dinwiddie is the recreation program supervisor for the city of Gaithersburg, Md. Reach her at mdinwiddie@gaithersburgmd.gov. For more information on the Student Union, visit www.facebook.com/groups/Gburg.Student.Union.

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How To Build A Successful Student Union

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