by Dr. Gladys I. Cruz
District Superintendent, Questar III BOCES

Over the past several weeks our local schools have been abuzz with the culmination of several extracurricular activities. These programs, which enrich the lives of hundreds of students, serve as a testament to the power of learning that extends far beyond our classrooms.

Odyssey of the Mind, the world’s largest creative problem-solving competition, exemplifies this perfectly. Unlike traditional tests, Odyssey of the Mind celebrates teamwork, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and imagination. Teams develop unique solutions to open-ended challenges, culminating in elaborate theatrical presentations.

This year, 25 teams from Columbia, Greene, and Rensselaer counties – including a team from Ichabod Crane Middle School and a team from Catskill High School – thrived in regionals held at Coxsackie-Athens CSD. These teams will now compete in the state competition on April 13. At least one local team has reached the world finals every year since 2007 (except for 2020 when the competition was cancelled).

Similarly, for students seeking a deeper understanding of democracy, government and civic engagement, the Angelo Del Toro Puerto Rican/Hispanic Youth Leadership Institute (PR/HYLI) offers a unique opportunity. This program empowers 400 students statewide with heritage from 20 formally recognized Spanish-speaking countries, sovereign states, and territories. This includes 18 students from Ichabod Crane CSD and two students from Chatham CSD.

Staff and volunteers from the statewide Regional Bilingual Education Resource Network (RBERN) and New York City Public Schools provide weekend training sessions in preparation for the culmination in Albany. The program culminates with a three-day event in Albany, including a mock legislative assembly at the state Capitol.

This year, 275 students traveled to Albany to debate real bills impacting their communities. The experience provided students with tangible experiences in negotiating compromise, parliamentary procedure, public speaking, advocacy, research, and consensus building.

Isabella Wiseman, a Chatham High School senior, served as minority leader of the mock assembly. Ichabod Crane High School junior Maria Guadalupe Tapia Morales, who provided opening marks, was named one of most outstanding junior delegates. Alexa Meza, an Ichabod Crane High School senior, earned a $2,000 scholarship from SOMOS, Inc.

Since its inception, more than 8,000 students have benefitted from this experiential approach that takes learning out of the textbook and brings it directly into the legislative process and halls of power. Many participants stress that the impact of PR/HYLI extends far beyond the program’s duration. They say they emerge with a heightened sense of civic responsibility, ready to advocate for their communities and uplift others. PR/HYLI graduates also have a high rate of college acceptance and voter registration.

Extracurriculars can also extend beyond traditional academics. Last month, 11 students from Columbia and Greene counties earned medals in the SkillsUSA New York State Area III competition, which tested hands-on skills. This included three first place winners – Raymond Henderson (Greenville CSD) in First Aid/CPR, Lola Fraim (Greenville CSD) for Cosmetology Jr., and Brielle Stange (Taconic Hills CSD) for Cosmetology Sr. Additionally, Breonna Dragon (Catskill CSD) and Jacob Somma (Germantown CSD) finished second in First Aid/CPR and Construction, and Emilie Weig (Hudson CSD) finished third in Criminal Justice. Students will compete in the state competition April 24-26.

Congratulations to our student winners and their families – and thanks to the many people who make these programs and activities possible. These programs not only allow students to develop and hone valuable skills, but they also ignite their passion for learning and help to build their confidence. Let us celebrate the power of extracurricular activities in preparing our students for their futures. Check your school’s website for additional information on upcoming events, such as the Hudson Children’s Book Festival on May 4.

This column appeared in the April 10, 2024 Register Star and The Daily Mail newspapers.

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