Washington Seminar is sending 42 Parker High School and Craig High School students to Washington, D.C.

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Stan Milam/Special to The Gazette
Saturday, March 29, 2014

JANESVILLE--She was a Parker High School senior who studied national health insurance as part of the Washington Seminar program.

Throughout the school year, in addition to an advanced government class, she researched federal health care and made arrangements to interview experts in the field while spending a week in Washington, D.C., conducting field research.

Like the rest of her Washington Seminar classmates, she went over her packing list to make sure everything was in order for a week of study and cultural events.

This Washington Seminar student is Denise Dill. Back in 1973, when she was one of seven young scholars who made that first Washington Seminar trip to Washington, she was Denise Spors.

“It's an adventure I'll never forget,” Denise said during a telephone interview from her home in Almond, about 20 miles south of Stevens Point. “Eight of us in a station wagon--it's something that stays with you.”

When asked if she remembered her topic, Denise did not hesitate.

“I sure do,” she said. "It was national health care. Can you believe it? I guess some things never change.”

A team of five students will be studying the same topic in different forms when 42 students making up the 2014 Washington Seminar class travel to the nation's capital for the 42nd consecutive year of Washington Seminar field study.

The students were scheduled to fly to Washington, D.C., Saturday morning.

This year's health care team is researching the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, Medicare reform and budget policy polarization with a focus on health care.

Jordan Peyer, a Parker senior on this year's field study, said he was not surprised that he is researching a topic studied 42 years ago by the first Washington Seminar class.

“It's a complicated issue, so I'm not surprised that we are still discussing it,” he said. “What baffles me is why it takes so long to solve the problem of health care for American citizens. I'm hoping to get some answers on the field research trip.”

Peyer said he is not intimidated by the task of taking on Washington and its issues.

“I was a Tim Cullen intern for a summer, so I think I have a general idea of how things work,” he said. “That's not to say it will not be a challenge, but at least I have some knowledge going in.”

In 1973, Denise, Colleen Clark and Sandy Scherer focused specifically on two bills--a health care proposal in the Senate authored by Sen. Edward Kennedy and a House proposal authored by Rep. Martha Griffiths. Both bills called for national health insurance.

Forty-two years later, Congress still is debating the topic, although the Affordable Care Act has put the issue farther down the road envisioned by Kennedy and Griffiths.

“We had several meetings including some specifically on our topic,” Denise said. “We were required to write a paper based on our research, and we all had to do a scrapbook.”

Denise and her team met with staffers from the Ways and Means Committee, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and Rep. Griffiths' office. Meetings with Rep. Les Aspin and Sen. William Proxmire also were helpful, Denise said.

Denise attended UW-Rock County after graduating from Parker. She received her bachelor's degree from UW-Whitewater. After working a few years in the non-profit sector, Denise began her career in education. She continues to teach K-6 physical education in the Plainfield School District.

While the issues may not have changed, the Washington Seminar program, founded in 1973 by Parker teacher John Eyster, has evolved with the times.

Instead of a station wagon, this year's group will travel to Washington by commercial aircraft. The tradition of working the pay phones with a roll of quarters has given way to cellphones and email.

But the central mission of the program remains. There are no substitutes for solid research and persistence.

“Even though the technology and travel arrangements have changed, core principles remain,” said co-director Joe Van Rooy. “Our young scholars still have to employ basic learning techniques, such as research and theory. They study how all voices related to their topics are in play and what roles those voices have.”

Learning foundations rarely change, Eyster said.

“I'm so proud of the program's continuing success,” Eyster said. "Washington Seminar is intended to provide students with a keen awareness of our republic's form of government with significant individual rights and the responsibilities that go along with those rights. One of those responsibilities is to be informed and involved.”

The program has remained focused on education, not sightseeing,” Eyster said.

“From the beginning, personal maturity was required,” he said. “I was not a babysitter. Our students were treated as young adults.”

Denise agreed.

“The Washington Seminar experience gave me the opportunity to learn more about the federal government,” she said. “It gives you a better feeling about our civic duties.”

It seems as if everyone is glad of one change--no more station wagons.

“Well, if I had to, I would travel by station wagon, but thankfully we have been able to travel by air,” Van Rooy said. “Flying provides us with more time in D.C. and more opportunities for learning.”

Peyer was cool to the idea of traveling to D.C. by station wagon, especially with six other students and a driver.

“I would still look forward to the week in Washington, but not so much the trip there,” he said.

Even Eyster looks back on the station wagon with some reservations.

“I'm not sure I'd even attempt it again,” he said. “With all our luggage stacked on top and a car full of kids, we were limited on where we could go. I remember bottoming out a lot."

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