SPRINGFIELD — Most fourth-graders learn about state government and history in the confines of a classroom, but Wednesday morning, 32 Harristown Elementary School students were able to see state government in action as they toured the Illinois Capitol and participated in a mock news conference.
The field trip, a longstanding tradition developed by former fourth-grade teacher Jeff Deremiah, was designed not only to help enrich the students’ understanding of state government, but also to expose them to the fields of communication and journalism.
“I started this field trip 43 years ago,” said Deremiah, who helped chaperone the students, “and I decided students in fourth grade needed to do this because this is the time they’re learning about state government.”
From climbing four flights of steps to see the Illinois House of Representatives and Senate galleries, to exploring the Capitol’s old Supreme Court room and looking up at the building’s intricate Rotunda, the students were in awe.
“Wow, this is awesome,” said Stanley Smith, 10, as the students sat in the House gallery and looked at the numerous crystal chandeliers that lit the House floor.
“These chandeliers weigh 750 pounds apiece,” explained Angela Jones, a tour guide who has escorted people through the Capitol for six years. “And do you know the movie ‘Legally Blonde 2’ with Reese Witherspoon? Three days of that movie were filmed here.”
The Capitol’s Rotunda was another impressive site for the fourth-graders.
“The dome is my favorite part,” said Samantha Weiffenbach, 9. “It makes me a little dizzy, though.”
“Me, too,” said Bryana Lugari, 10.
In addition to touring the building, the students were able to meet state Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur.
“I’m a state representative,” she said, “and part of my job is to help make the laws. Twenty years ago, I stood here with a class of students, and never in my wildest dreams did I think that I’d be standing here and doing this job today.”
“How long did it take you to get up the courage to do this?” asked Weiffenbach.
“A long time,” said Scherer. “But two or three years ago, I decided I wanted to give it a shot.”
The most anticipated part of the students’ field trip came at the end, when they each represented a local media outlet and participated in a mock news conference in Gov. Pat Quinn’s ceremonial office.
“The students had to learn how to report and take notes,” Deremiah said. “They also had to learn how a real press conference is conducted and that not everyone gets to ask questions.
Student Leanna Homer was looking forward to meeting Quinn.
“I’m excited to talk to the governor but also a little nervous,” she said.
Surrounding Quinn’s desk, the students gave an audible gasp as the governor made his way into the office.
“It’s really an honor to visit with all of you,” Quinn said.
From questions on how to attract more businesses to Illinois to inquiring about whether hours of operation had been cut at state historic sites due to the economy, the students were eager to talk to the governor.
Weiffenbach, representing the Decatur Tribune, had questions about funding for education.
“Education has received reduced funding in the state budget. Why?” she asked.
“We’re having to pay more each year for retirement and pension costs, so more money is going into the retirement and pension accounts instead of the classroom accounts,” Quinn said. “I don’t like that, but right now, we’re trying to have pension reform, and if we can do that, we’ll then have more money for your schools and education.”
As they prepared to leave the Capitol, the students agreed Wednesday’s field trip was the best one they’d had to date.
“The best part was the press conference and (seeing the House floor),” said Haylie Pocklington, 10. “I liked how high up we were in the gallery; that was amazing. Meeting the governor was really exciting, too. Nothing can top this.”
“It was such an honor to come here and see all of the action,” said Principal Jill Reedy. “The kids are in awe, and I think it was really exciting for them to see the legislators at work. This was a big opportunity for them, and they’ll never forget this.”
“I like doing this trip both to make the kids aware of the communications and journalism fields, but also to allow them to see how government works,” he said. “This is always an exciting trip for them, and I never get tired of seeing how excited they get.”