DANVILLE — Out of the mouths of babes.
That was Alderman Bill Black's comment after four North Ridge Middle School students told the Danville city council last Tuesday why two Danville dams should be removed.
It was a poignant moment in a year-long, contentious, often emotional debate when each of the students — nervous yet well-prepared with research — took turns at the microphone weighing in on the issue in front of 14 aldermen and the mayor.
How did it feel?
Intimidating, they said.
After months of discussion and public hearings, the council was voting that night on whether to remove the dams. Just the day before, several aldermen were still on the fence, unsure how they would vote.
Last to speak that night, the students, and aldermen, had just listened to several other public comments, all from adults, who gave their reasons why the city should not remove the two deteriorating dams that have been the site of at least eight drownings since 1971, two of them former North Ridge students.
"We were the only people presenting our side," said 14-year-old Peyton Blodgett, a member of the Future Problem Solvers team at North Ridge in Danville.
Drawing on weeks of research by their 14-member problem solvers team, the four students — Peyton, Neil Patel, Makayla Smith and Crystina Wayne — summarized the team's work for the aldermen, making their case not about dams, specifically, but about learning to swim.
In a nutshell, the students told aldermen that low-head dams, by design, pose a greater risk of drowning, and Danville likely has a significant number of children who don't know how to swim.
But it wasn't that deadly combination that had initially caught the attention of the young problem solvers earlier in the school year.
Future Problem Solvers is an extracurricular activity at North Ridge that teaches students to use critical and creative thinking to promote a positive goal. Each year, the team focuses on an issue adversely affecting the community, works on a project addressing the issue. and submits their project for an international competition.
This school year, the team chose water safety, because last July, two children in Danville drowned on the same day in unrelated swimming pool accidents.
"Obviously, we don't want that to keep happening. We realized (water safety) was important," said team member Ashleigh Acree, 13.
They called their project, "Liquid Lifesavers — to Dry Out Drowning by Teaching Water Safety Smarts."
Their coach, North Ridge teacher Lori Woods, said the team starts each project with extensive research, mostly on their own time, and later they formulate goals.
From their research, they learned:
— Each day, an average of 15 people die from drowning in the United States.
— Drowning is the second leading cause of death among children, after car accidents.
— Formal swim lessons significantly reduce the risk of drowning, by more than 80 percent.
— Communities with higher rates of poverty have fewer residents who can afford formal lessons.
— More than 29 percent of Danville residents live in poverty.
— Blacks and Hispanics are at a greater risk of drowning, and more than 47 percent of Danville school students are black or Hispanic. About 70 percent of black children cannot swim; 60 percent of Latino children cannot swim; and 40 percent of Caucasian children cannot swim, according to USA Swimming Foundation.
After research, the students set goals, developed a brochure, a presentation and began pursuing their goals.
The entire team has become certified in CPR; then they held a CPR class which certified 30 others, ranging in age from children to elderly. They have organized a Make a Splash Day, a program of the USA Swimming Foundation, at the Danville Family YMCA. The students pitched the idea to a local YMCA official, and the YMCA agreed to the event. On President's Day, when students are out of school, free swim lessons will be offered at the YMCA. Soon, the team will be submitting its project for this year's international competition, to which past North Ridge teams have been invited.
But during their research, the local lowhead dam issue came to the attention of the team, and Woods said the students decided to make that part of their project as well. They researched lowhead dams in general and Danville's two city-owned dams specifically, and concluded they should be removed for the safety of the community.
Certain team members were chosen to speak to the city council about their findings.
Woods said picking a problem solvers team is a lot like a basketball team; you don't need 14 centers. Some of the students excel at public speaking, others at research, some at computer graphics.
Mayor Scott Eisenhauer was expecting a very close vote on the issue last Tuesday night. He said he believes the comments from the students played a role in the council overwhelmingly approving the removal of both dams — one by a 12-2 vote and the other a 13-1 vote.
Woods said the students are now seeing all their hard work pay off.
"It feels good," Peyton said of the council's decision. The four believe their comments made a difference, and according to Neil, it was worth a little embarrassment, too.
A bit smaller in stature than the others, the microphone was too high when he began his comments Tuesday, and part-way into his statement, an aldermen asked a city official to adjust it.
Not missing a beat, Neil paused and returned to his statement, telling aldermen that the combination of eroding dams and high-risk populations make them a much greater safety hazard and they should vote to remove them.
"It was kind of an embarrassing moment, but it still paid off," Neil said with a smile.
MEET THE PROBLEM SOLVERS
Hero: My family
Dream job: Physicist
Bucket list: 1. Skydive, 2. Get on "Jeopardy," 3. Meet Alex Trebek.
Hero: My older brother
Dream job: Computer programmer
Bucket list: 1. Complete the 5x5 Rubik's Cube (given that he already mastered the 3x3 and 4x4 Rubik's Cube).
Hero: My brother, Ethan
Dream job: Lawyer
Bucket list: Go to a One Direction concert.
Hero: My mom
Dream job: Lawyer, opening a firm with Makayla
Bucket list: Visit all 50 states before turning 50. (At 12, she has 12 down, 38 to go).
The rest of North Ridge's Future Problem Solvers:
Ashleigh Acree, 13
Aaron Dye, 14
Kaleb Medina, 13
Nate Pollert, 12
Andrew Ritchie, 14
Delsie Robinson, 11
Erica Sadler, 12
Molly Smith, 13
Audrey Talbott, 13
Rebekah Wall, 13