The city attorney swiveled enthusiastically in his chair.
The mayor could barely see over the podium.
One councilperson wore a flower in her hair.
It was a typical Olathe City Council meeting that was not-so-typical. Everything was done by the book. It just happened to be run by third-graders.
On a recent Friday afternoon, third-grade students from Woodland Elementary took over the council chambers. With each kid playing a role, they held a mock city council meeting. After holding a public hearing, the pint-sized council unanimously voted to approve a new, albeit make-believe, skate park for the city.
“That was so cool,” gushed Tessa Mathews, a 9-year-old who played a newspaper reporter covering the meeting. “It felt so real.”
The mock city council meeting was part of the “Learning about Olathe” third-grade program, a partnership between the city and the Olathe School District.
The daylong field trip to City Hall and public works building offers the students a glimpse into the inner workings of each city department. They visit learning stations about city services and, of course, hold a mock council meeting.
“We hope it makes a difference in how these young kids see their community,” said Susan Sherman, assistant city manager. “Each year, we’re so impressed with how seriously these kids take the council meeting. They always come up with thoughtful questions for our staff too.”
Nine years ago, Sherman helped launch the program as a way to incorporate city government into the third-grade curriculum.
On their visit, the Woodland kids learned about street-sweeping, snow-plowing and sewers, among many other services, at the public works building.
They designed a city with the planning department.
They watched a police dog sniff out backpacks.
They played 1870s recess games outside.
Meeting different city employees from all the various departments is a vital part of the process, Sherman pointed out.
“It’s also about building relationships and breaking down barriers,” she said. “Most kids are a little intimidated by police officers because they’re tall, wear a uniform and carry a gun. Kids should realize that these officers are their friends and they can go to them for help. Meeting an officer face-to-face helps tremendously.”
Edianna Yantis, a Woodland third-grade teacher, thinks highly of the program.
“It’s important for kids to see the government in action,” she said. “I can teach them about local government from a textbook, but to actually be in a council meeting makes it real.”
Tessa, the reporter from the mock council meeting, summed up most of her classmates’ sentiments by exclaiming the day was, “awesome.”
“The entire day has been really overwhelming because I’ve learned so much,” she said. “It’s exciting to see how the city makes the laws.”
Her mom, who was one of the field trip chaperones, said even she learned a lot.
“It opened my eyes too because there’s a lot of planning that goes on behind the scenes,” said Amy Mathews. “There are so many different jobs and departments and they’re all equally important. Everyone plays a significant role in bettering the city.”
One of the kids’ favorite activities of the day was playing Flying Dutchman in the yard outside City Hall. Under the bright blue sky, they laughed and ran around, while Alexis Woodall, events coordinator for Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop and Farm, supervised them with a smile.
Wearing a 19th century schoolteacher dress, she called out instructions to the kids and shouted out encouragement.
Normally, as part of the historical learning station for the field trip, she gives 1870s school lessons. But the weather was so gorgeous on this Friday afternoon, she decided to let the kids play outside.
“Today, kids have smart boards in their classrooms and everyone has a cellphone,” she said. “Back then, the basic lessons were still the same, but the kids used a chalkboard and they sat up straight. It’s important to know about Olathe’s past in addition to its present.”
At the end of the afternoon, the Woodland kids piled into their school bus, anxious to begin spring break and happy for the memories they made that day.
“The council meeting was a little scary, but I had a lot of fun,” said McKenna Meyer, a 9-year-old. “I learned a lot about Olathe.”