The HSF Mission
Thought, Words and Action
One wouldn't think of Carmel, California, a small coastal town south of Monterey, as a hotbed for community action. However, nestled between the Cypress trees and the crashing surf, the small group of dedicated people at the Harry Singer Foundation are providing opportunities for Americans to make positive changes in their own communities, across the nation.
Programs, designed for the general public but currently focusing on teachers and high school students -- including essay contests, community service project-development, online services, research materials, and curricula development-- all are ways that members of the non-profit Harry Singer Foundation are making a tangible difference in our nation.
Founded to preserve both the ideal and the practice of freedom, "HSF aims to help people develop the skills and knowledge essential to the task," according to co-Founder Margaret Bohannon-Kaplan. "Our focus is on the average citizen, and our goal is to motivate him or her to make positive differences in America."
Martha Collings, a teacher at Plainview High School in Ardmore, Oklahoma, whose high school students participate in annual HSF essay contests, praised them as "a refreshing change from the usual boring ones we are asked to enter."
Her sentiment probably arose from the complex and educationally stimulating components of the contest. Students must incorporate first and second-hand research, classroom discussion, individual analysis, and come up with their own conclusions to timely topics like health care, the media's role in national elections, the government's role in child care, and the importance of responsibility to the proper functioning of the nation..
"This was one of the most challenging and thought-provoking contests my students have entered," said Janet Newton, a teacher from Freeman High School, Rockford, Washington.
Another teacher, Jerry McGinley of DeForest High School in DeForest, Wisconsin agreed, saying, "My students put in a great deal of time and effort reading and discussing the various articles, writing out discussion the questions, and writing the essays."
It is likely that these teachers also put in a great deal of time. The HSF contest includes materials and support (through online services, texts, and personnel from the foundation) for an entire lesson plan based around issues raised by the essay topic for a given year. HSF aims to have teachers discuss the topic with their students extensively before the actual writing begins.
Teacher Mary Ellen Schoonover of Strasburg High school in Strasburg, Colorado spent a considerable amount of time on assignments and discussions related to the 1994 topic "Responsibility: Who has It and Who Doesn't and What This Means to the Nation."
"I felt the Singer essay was a valuable instructional tool," she said. "I incorporated the materials into class by distributing the required reading essays and questions to use as homework assignments with class discussion following each week for four weeks. After discussing the essays, students chose a topic, and classes did library research."
The result of this kind of preparation is thousands of well-researched analyses of a topic. The essays are judged by a variety of ordinary citizens and, depending on the topic, a large sampling of attorneys, academics, politicians, financial wizards, other teens and senior citizens. This works because schools are not judged against each other, but only internally, so each school ends up with awards. "That's the big attraction of our contest," explains board member, Donna Glacken. "Every school is a winner. That and the fact that we publish excerpts from the contest and distribute the hard copy book to all 535 members of congress and their state and community politicians and home town media."
This year's essay contest introduces some changes to the usual prize format. Winners at each school will receive the usual small cash awards, but three schools will also be selected. These top entrants will receive computer equipment from the Foundation.
This change reflects the theme, "Reinventing Government." "The politicians [we have contacted this year] are interested in this reinventing government theme. Everybody's trying to get schools computer literate," explained Bohannon-Kaplan. "This helps us achieve our purposes."
The research process will also be different than in previous years. Students will be preparing their entries as a class by conducting polls of both community members and civic leaders, then identifying the major concerns to their own communities. As a class they will develop solutions, taking into consideration issues of funding, regulation, labor, etc. They will then submit individual essays explaining the class proposal.
Reading materials are also available through the Foundation, either online or in hard copy, free of charge to schools and individual adults in exchange for action. This year they will be publishing a social studies workbook that can be used in the classroom, again, free of charge.
These programs help HSF accomplish their goal of providing citizens with information necessary for political and personal decision-making. "We believe many people base their decision on too little or erroneous information about public policy. They also tend to underestimate the effort and goodwill of their fellow citizens," said Bohannon-Kaplan.