OLYMPIA, Wash — The state Capitol in Olympia can be an intimidating and mystifying place for those who don’t follow politics closely.
But under that imposing dome is an innovative program for teens that has been quietly making Washington state better for generations.
While nearly every state in the U.S. has a legislative page program, only Washington pairs that program with a formal page school program.
Whether it’s sitting inside the Supreme Court or talking with the state treasurer or presenting their own legislative ideas, pages are constantly on the move. They run errands, deliver notes and help lawmakers in both the Senate and the House chambers.
“This week has been … Oh my gosh. It’s been amazing,” says Senate page Emma Thuau. “You really got to see different points of view, and you get to see how senators deal with that and think in a very open-minded way.”
Page Supervisor Seth Coats says that’s the point of the entire program, both politically and personally, for the students.
“My favorite part of my job is seeing kids break out of their shell,” says Coats.
Teens age 14 to 16 apply for the program each legislative session. They are chosen from public schools, private schools and even home schools. Once selected, they come to Olympia, where they are trained on the job for the duties and dropped into the page school classroom where they find teacher Leo O’Leary.
“This is an amazing place to work,” says O’Leary.
O’Leary is the full-time page school teacher. That’s a position that doesn’t exist in other states.
“Doesn’t matter to me whether they vote Republican or Democrat, but whether they are involved,” says O’Leary. “That is the goal to have them continue to be involved because that’s what makes our state government healthy.”
O’Leary says research consistently shows that daily duties and practical experience paired with on-going class lessons results in lifelong civic engagement for a majority of teens in similar programs.
Just ask state Rep. Steve Bergquist.
“I was a page,” says Bergquist. “It was such a good experience such a long time ago.”
Bergquist paged when he was in high school 20 years ago. Now, he’s a state lawmaker.
“It really inspired me to eventually run for office,” says Bergquist, who taught social studies in south King County before deciding to run for office.
He’s not the only former page who decided to face voters. State Sen. Hans Zeiger was also a page.
“That week really gives you a sense of awe and wonder about this process and this state Capitol,” says Sen. Zeiger.
Both Bergquist and Zeiger agree their time as a page changed their lives, but it is constantly making democracy better for everyone in Washington.
“If you don’t know what’s going on down here in Olympia or across the country, your voice doesn’t really count,” says Berquist.
So are there any future lawmakers among the current crop of legislative pages?
“I’m not sure about that, but it is cool to see how this program inspires people,” says House Page Lauryn Daniels.
Lauryn and her sister Jada both served as pages in January and agree it reminded them why our system of government works so well.
“I have a duty to be involved,” says Jada Daniels.
All teens are encouraged to apply. Leo O’Leary says there are scholarships available if cost is an issue. He says if distance is a concern there are families in Olympia where the teens can stay for the week as well.
O’Leary says he hopes nothing stops any teen with an interest from participating.
“It shows kids that they can make a difference.”