AUSTIN (KXAN) — Hundreds of Central Texas students debut projects Tuesday that illustrate their advocacy on local issues they care about, like homelessness, school safety and climate change.

Civics Day — a sort of science fair, but for government — is the product of the national nonprofit Generation Citizen, a group that gives middle and high school students hands-on experience working with local governments.

“I can’t think of a more important thing to teach my kids than that their voice matters,” said Kyle Olson, a government teacher at Austin ISD’s Northeast Early College High School.

Four students will represent his class at Civics Day at the Austin Central Library downtown starting at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. The entire class has worked all semester to promote tree-planting and reforestation efforts in Travis County.

Seven local schools, representing 37 classes and more than 1,000 students working on projects, will be showing judges, including local government officials, their projects Tuesday.

‘It takes a lot of effort’

Mario Mondragon and Jacqui Sabino work on their project board with their teacher, Kyle Olson, on Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

Olson’s AP government class brainstormed ideas at the start of the semester for projects they wanted to tackle. They came up with reforestation and its impacts on climate change as the issue they wanted to address.

“This is something that matters to the whole world,” said senior Mario Mondragon, one of the students presenting at the fair.

The next step for the class was to come up with goals and tactics. After talking to a representative of the nonprofit TreeFolks, the students decided to advocate for a program to plant trees on public and private land.

That program, a method of earning carbon offsets for the city of Austin’s 2020 carbon neutrality goal, is a partnership between the nonprofit, the city of Austin and Travis County.

ThAs part of their project, they reached out to county commissioners via email.

“We wrote them to try to convince the commissioners court to allocate money towards the TreeFolks program and reforestation,” Sabino said.

Despite not hearing back immediately, Judge Sarah Eckhardt sent a letter of support to TreeFolks the day her office received the email, emphasizing the county’s support for the planting program.

A county spokesman said the court also responded to the students on Monday.

The process over the last several months taught Mondragon that making change is not easy.

“It takes a lot of effort,” he said, “and sometimes you might think that no one cares about it.”

A learning experience

The class teaches students about how their local government works, a critical lesson, Olson said, at Northeast.

“A lot of my students and families in my community are marginalized in the process of government,” he said. “They don’t feel like government works for them.”

Teaching them how to make their voices heard, he said, will help them down the road.

Mondragon, for instance, didn’t originally want to address the reforestation project in class; he wanted to tackle homelessness, “because I see that. I go downtown and it’s a big issue, like you see all those people out there.”

The next time he’s ready to fight for something he believes in, like finding ways to help people experiencing homelessness, Olson said, he’ll know what to do.

“You guys will know how to engage in this process,” he told his students.