Miami Herald | By Marie-Rose Sheinerman | June 17, 2021
At 8:30 p.m. on the night before their last day of class, four Miami Lakes Middle School students sat in a town hall audience, flashcards in hand, preparing to push lawmakers to address a significant problem.
Months earlier, Tropical Storm Eta had so badly drenched their campus that the school auditorium flooded and students attending class in person were forced to miss a day. Other schools in the town closed for two days, and streets and homes in the West Miami-Dade suburb were flooded.
Now, believing at 13 and 14 years old that they’d found a way to help address a growing problem, Maurits Acosta, Jocelyn Hernandez, Gabriella Vega and Lucia Bring were about to lobby local lawmakers to pass flood-prevention legislation they drew up themselves.
“We have a passion for civic engagement and this year we wanted to tackle a problem in this community — flooding,” Jocelyn, 14, told the town’s council during its June 8 meeting.
The students’ proposed ordinance — which aims to reduce flooding by limiting the amount of impervious material built onto residential properties inside town limits — received tentative approval that night from the Miami Lakes Town Council.
But the students aren’t done: They’ll need the council to vote a second time on July 13 to turn their proposal into law. Asked during an on-campus interview whether they plan to continue working through the summer to see the legislation through, the students laughed. Though the effort is now coming to a head, the legislation is the product of months inside Lisa Deyarza’s legal studies classroom.
“We’ve worked over spring break, winter break, teacher planning days, weekends, birthdays,” Maurits, 14, said. “In a way, we’ve been preparing for five, six months.”
Jocelyninterjected: “We took off ‘take your child to work’ day, just so we could work on this project.” Countless hours of research later, the students feel their town council representatives are taking the issue seriously.
As explained in their amendment and supporting memo, which Deyarza said the students wrote entirely on their own, the town would regulate construction materials in new or renovating single-family and two-family homes to limit the amount of impervious material used to build driveways, walkways, patios, porches, and other features in street-facing yards.
Studies have shown that increasing the percentage of permeable pavement in urban areas significantly reduces the risk of flooding.
Although the students will likely be revising the amendment in preparation for the council’s next hearing, as written it places a 50% cap on the material that can be impermeable, though exceptions allowing more coverage are made if special pavers are used. The current cap on impervious material is 60%.
At the June 8 meeting, the first reading of the resolution, the students received a few notes from the council, including a proposal to make allowances for those residences already under construction and requests to edit the amendment’s language to be more prescriptive and clarify incentives such as allocating more parking space for businesses that choose to build with the permeable materials.
But for the most part, members of the council said they want to see the legislation pass this summer. Councilmember Joshua Dieguez called the proposal “stunning.”
“When I first spoke with the students, I was incredibly impressed,” said Councilmember Tony Fernandez, who sponsored their item. “It blew my mind.”
‘THEY HAVE TO WANT IT’
The project started off as part of thecompetition-based legal studies class Deyarza teaches and at first involved 12 students. Eventually, four students stayed involved with the idea — and took it far outside the classroom.
“I don’t force anybody to do this, they have to want it,” Deyarza said in an interview.
Deyarza is no stranger to seeing her students recognized at the town, state, and even national level. In 2019, the team she coached placed first in the nation at the We the People competition, a tournament aimed at promoting “civic competence and responsibility.” Last year, a group of her students, including three involved with the flooding ordinance, successfully passed the “Safe Place Ordinance” in Miami Lakes which limited how close certain types of businesses operate to schools, including sex shops, gun stores, and liquor shops, Maurits explained. And in 2021, the students’ flooding project won first place statewide at a Project Citizen competition.
As part of their research, the students reached out to Jayantha Obeysekera, the director of Florida International University’s Sea Level Solution Center. When he got their email, Obeysekera said, he assumed they were at least high schoolers, if not older.
That’s exactly the impression Deyarza, the social studies department chair at Miami Lakes Middle, had hoped to create.
“I don’t want them to sound like little kids,” she said. “I want them to sound like a citizen. An informed citizen, a concerned citizen.”
Obeysekera said it warms his heart to see students getting involved with climate-change related advocacy so early. Ten years ago, he said, whenever he gave public talks on sea level rise, he could barely spot any young people in the room.
“It’s very satisfactory to see middle schoolers getting involved in the type of issues that the community is going to face increasingly in the near future due to climate change,” Obeysekera said. “They are very smart kids, if I can call them kids.”
The students said they see their project as part of a larger passion about preserving the environment.
“It’s not only that we’re trying to help decrease the issue of flooding,” said Gabriella. “But also so it can be better for the environment and more eco-friendly.”
‘WE SHOULD HIRE ALL OF YOU’
The students, who sat for an interview as the bell rang on their last day of school, said that with school out for the summer, they are determined to devote even more of their time on the project.
And beyond the amendment, they seem to know what they want and feel determined to get it. At age 13, Gabriella said she knows she wants to be a lawyer some day. Just one year older, Jocelyn said her plan is to get both a medical degree and a juris doctorate to practice medical law.
Maurits said he hopes to eventually be in a position to make legislative change directly. “I feel very inspired when I look at our local councilmen,” he said. “I would love to do something like that in the future.”
The council might just be waiting for him with open arms.
“We should hire all of you,” Councilmember Marilyn Ruano told the students.
Featured image: Jocelyn Hernandez, Gabriella Vega and Maurits Acosta hold one of the awards they won for an environmental project, on June 9, 2021. They are Miami Lakes Middle School students who proposed flood prevention legislation to the town council after Tropical Storm Eta flooded parts of the west Miami-Dade town, including their school auditorium. CHARLES TRAINOR JR. CTRAINOR@MIAMIHERALD.COM