HELENA – More than 100 high school boys from around Montana are in Helena this week to get firsthand training in how government works.
The students gathered at Carroll College Sunday for the first day of the annual Montana American Legion Boys State program. Over six days, they’ll simulate every aspect of government in Montana.
The students are organized into mock cities, counties and a single state. Each of those governments has the same leadership positions as its real-life counterpart. The students will take on those roles and practice governmental processes, from city and county commission meetings and court hearings to state legislative sessions and elections.
Greg Pohle, the director of Montana Boys State, said, while the situations are simulated, the issues they touch on are serious.
“The kids are all smart; they know their issues; they know their values,” said Greg Pohle, the director of Montana Boys State. “A lot of the time, some of the bills and some of the discussions that we have are probably more relevant and more mature than what we see in current government.”
The American Legion has been sponsoring Boys State programs around the country for more than 80 years. It was created as a practical way to teach high school students about the rights, privileges, duties and responsibilities of being an active citizen.
“We try and instill a lot of civic duty, civic pride, civic responsibility in the kids, and then let them know that there’s an avenue to give back to their community – whether that be volunteering with their local PTA when they’re older or running for government or just getting involved somehow, some way.” said Pohle.
Boys State programs are operated in 49 states and about 20,000 students take part each year.
A number of prominent Montana leaders went through the Boys State program, including Gov. Steve Bullock, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and former U.S. Rep. and current U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. Pohle said they have remained supportive of the program, sometimes speaking to the delegates during the week.
“The kids that get to see these guys as speakers already have that connection,” he said. “They say, ‘They went to Boys State,’ then they might say, ‘Hey, I went to Boys State, too.’”
Most of the counselors who will work with the students also went through the program themselves. Pohle was a delegate in high school, then spent 20 years as a counselor before becoming director.
“The Boys State mantra is ‘A week that’ll shape a lifetime,’ and it’s definitely shaped my lifetime,” he said.
By the end of the week, leaders hope the students have developed not only a new understanding of how government works, but also a knowledge of how to work together to get things done.
“These kids are our future leaders, so we definitely want to put as much time and effort into them as possible,” said Pohle.
Boys State will run through Friday.