The junior class took over at a school in Northwest Tucson for two days last week.
Dressed in professional garb, 27 juniors sidestepped the curriculum. They lead workshops on body image and video game violence. They sent their peers on an educational scavenger hunt, of sorts. They introduced athletes and musicians as guest speakers.
The change of pace did not involve an overthrow of the school's administration - at Green Fields Country Day School, the junior class takes over every year.
Issue Days, held Oct. 23-24 this year, is a junior-planned event that focuses on an issue of national or global importance. The students choose a topic, think of questions within the topic they would like to explore, and organize sessions that address those questions.
This year, the class chose to explore the media's influence on American society.
"That fit the interests of the group," said junior class advisor Becky Cordier, adding that many of the students expressed interest in music, sports and politics.
Workshops focused on questions of immediate interest to students: Is violent content in video games necessary for selling them? How important is the role of the media in an athlete's career? Do the media influence the way people view their bodies?
KVOA-TV4 anchor Patty Weiss was the keynote speaker.
"This is totally student conceived," Cordier said. "Our role as their advisors is just to be the communication between them and the administration and faculty."
Issue Day, begun in 1982, allows all of the school's students, who range from third to 12th grade, chances to explore important issues on the level they are affected by them, said Sherry Weiss, principal of the high school. But it does something more for the juniors.
"The class that works on Issue Day becomes a more close knit group because of the process," Weiss said.
The event is usually one-day long, but this year the juniors decided to extend it to two days.
Near the beginning of the school year, the whole junior class began brainstorming about the contribution they wanted to make to their school through Issue Day.
After more brainstorming and weekly planning sessions, the students chose to offer workshops on the first day and send their participants off on a hunt for a mock news story on the second day.
The students formed committees to do the legwork - locating and procuring guest speakers, setting up workshop rooms, and jumpstarting discussions with good questions.
In the process, they learned how to see a major event through to completion and how to take the initiative while conducting business with adults.
"They were talking on a very adult level on the phone with the adults they were dealing with," Cordier said.
By the time this year's Issue Days arrived, the students felt deeply invested in the event's success, she said.
"They're asking questions when students come out the door," Cortier said on the first day of the event. "They say, 'Did you like that? How did it go?'"
Students weren't the only learners in the process. During student-centered discussions about the media's far-reaching influences, administrators learned, too.
"I learned a lot about the students," said Rick Belding, the head of schools. "It was helpful to me to hear them talking to each other."
Belding said that in his years leading the school, he never has had to censor an issue.
"You have to learn to trust the kids because they know what will appeal to other kids," he said.
Issues in past years have included multiculturalism, the American health care crisis, and the social effects of science and technology.
Weiss, a principal at the school for 20 years, said students often speak fondly of Issue Day in graduation speeches, remembering them as a time when they bonded and developed greater appreciation for each other.
"If a class has been scattered, it seems Issue Day was the time when people were brought together for a unified purpose," she said.
Though Green Fields Country Day School is a small, private college preparatory school with only 27 students in its junior class and 182 students total, Weiss said its Issue Day event could be replicated at public schools.
"Organizing something like this on a larger scale could be done, but it would take more time," Weiss said.
True, a public school might have to go through more steps in getting clearance for guest speakers and setting aside school time for the event, Belding added.
"We can do that in a 15-minute conversation," he said.
But the event, although, large-scale, involves little ex-pense, Belding said. Usually speakers are happy to volunteer their time.
"You wouldn't have to spend money and you could have a terrific program," he said.