Glendale High Students to Represent U.S. at Summit

Times Staff Writer

They gave up a semester's worth of Sundays. They missed practices, lunches and snack breaks. They shrugged off mocking classmates who said they were wasting time.

And now, months of sacrifice behind them, eight Glendale High School sophomores who call themselves the YinYangs are gearing up to give world leaders their advice on how to tackle global challenges.

The educational adventure they set out on together about five months ago has won them a ticket to St. Petersburg, Russia, where they will represent the United States in a 12-day student forum at this year's G-8 summit July 15-17.

Between trips to the Hermitage art museum and disco clubs, the students and their counterparts from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia will draft a joint communique that some of them will present to leaders of the Group of 8 industrialized nations.

In it, they will outline their proposals for taking on key issues on the G-8 agenda, including infectious diseases, energy security, education and the future of the Commonwealth of Independent States, an alliance of former Soviet republics.

Even a week before today's departure, the eight students still couldn't believe they had won the Junior G8 contest, developed by the Morgan Stanley International Foundation.

"I still think it's fake, until we get on the plane," said Viannca Montesino, 15.

Viannca was standing at a desk in the classroom of Nancy Witt, a Glendale Unified School District coach for history teachers and one of the group's chaperons on the trip.

Spread out around the brightly lit room, Viannca and her teammates were organizing their research. They unwrapped notebook dividers and slipped into thick, white binders articles on such subjects as bio-fuel production and Brazilian education.

"There's so many people in this country, I didn't think one specific area like us would win," Sergio Maciel, 15, said.

"A lot of people would tell us, 'Oh, you guys are not even gonna make it. Why are you guys even trying?' " Elaine Panlaqui, 15, said.

But for the YinYangs, it was never really about winning. They got at least as much satisfaction from the process of participating in the contest, which required them to go through pages and pages of information and put together a concise statement of their views on the G-8 topics, said Olivia Macaulay, their teacher.

The contest offered schools from each G-8 country -- except Russia, which had its own televised competition -- the chance to officially participate in the 2006 summit. Teams from more than 100 schools, 14 from the United States, submitted communiques.

Among the proposals submitted by the YinYangs:

* To reduce oil dependence, the G-8 countries should heavily tax petroleum and oil products and promote wider use of renewable energy sources.

* To combat the spread of infectious diseases, money from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and other foreign aid should be invested in building health clinics easily accessed by all people, and creating health-education programs for women.

* To promote education, the world's leading nations should tax industries that sell weapons to developing countries and funnel the revenue into training and hiring more teachers.

"We want our leaders to honor their promises and financial commitments" to foreign aid and the Global Fund, the students wrote. "By not lending a helping hand to developing countries, we are acting as contributors to the problem."

The group might never have gotten off the ground if Viannca and Kelly Velasquez, 15, had not been hanging out in Macaulay's classroom during a break one day earlier in the semester. Their teacher read them an e-mail describing the competition.

"If it interests you, let me know," she said. Only their immediate enthusiasm kept Macaulay from ignoring the item, she said. Instead, the girls brought the idea before their class and asked for volunteers who wanted to learn about global issues. Soon a team was meeting in Macaulay's classroom on Sundays.

"The very first Sunday, I remember I thought, 'Oh, this is going to be the joke's on me. They're not going to show up,' " said Macaulay, who teaches history and Advancement Via Individual Determination, the college-preparatory course the YinYangs were in.

But show up they did -- some even arrived early.

"These are not your top 2% kids of the sophomore class," Macaulay said. "These are just your average kids putting their best foot forward."

Each found a role. Edgar Hernandez, 16, found it difficult to speak up during meetings, sometimes letting his more vocal classmates take the lead, but he often chimed in with the perfect phrase when nothing sounded right during brainstorming sessions.

In May, When the original six members were looking for two more, they designed essay questions asking their classmates why they hadn't been involved from the start and what they would bring to the team, Viannca and Kelly said.

They conducted interviews to determine whether newcomers' personalities would fit their balance -- a concept that had inspired their team name. In the Taoist religion, yin and yang represent the balance that governs all of life and nature.

Other team members are Rigo Benitez, 15; Diana Perez, 16; and Shaunt Attarian, 15, replacing Bianca Zolimkhanian, 15, who was unable to attend.

Children will have to live with world leaders' decisions, so their participation is important, said Oliver Phillips, a communications officer for UNICEF, which helped organize the forum. "Children have a unique sort of perspective on a lot of global issues," one the G-8 leaders can benefit from, Phillips said. "We think it's vital they get to hear their views."

A planned videoconference between the Junior G8 members and students in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America will include young people from the developing world in the exchange too, he said.

The students' presence at the summit will give "a sense of engagement on something bigger than just the leaders talking to themselves," said Ann Veneman, UNICEF's executive director.

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