Students, staff and supporters packed the Reese Road Leadership Academy gym Thursday afternoon as they celebrated the culmination of their real-life civics lesson.
Gov. Nathan Deal signed House Bill 70 at the school where the effort to designate an official state mammal for Georgia started.
At the beginning of the school year, Reese Road fourth-grader Kevin Green was working on a Cub Scout project with Pack 362 at Nazareth Baptist Church. Required to list some state symbols, he noticed Georgia was one of only a few states to not have an official mammal.
Kevin mentioned this anomaly to his mother, Muscogee County School Board vice chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1, and she mentioned it to Reese Road principal Pam McCoy. Since the curriculum calls for the first grade to study habitats and Kevin's sister, Kaylah, is a Reese Road first-grader, it seemed like an ideal project for the first-grade classes to explore.
They wrote a letter to Hugley Green's sister-in-law, state Rep. Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus, asking her to sponsor such legislation. After researching the subject, the first-graders voted and chose the gray fox as the proposed state mammal. On Feb. 11, more than 80 Reese Road first-graders were escorted to the Georgia Capitol, where some of them testified before the Special Rules Committee in support of HB 70.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources intervened and suggested the white-tailed deer instead, and that version of the bill passed the legislature.
All of which brought the governor to town and third-grader Johnathon Brandt to the podium Thursday. As the event's official "welcomer," Johnathon pumped up the crowd when he hollered, "Wow! What a great day it is to be at Reese Road Leadership Academy, right?"
After the cheering subsided, Johnathon continued, "Today is about history, and it's about seeing something through to the very end. We have learned about the process of bringing about change in government."
McCoy thanked "everyone who made this possible, every student, every adult, every employee, every representative, every leader. Thank you. This is a collective effort."
Hugley Green called the project a lesson in the power of "asking meaningful questions to have a positive effect on an entire state" and "that hard work and perseverance really does pay off."
Hugley said, "I'm so very proud of these students. And parents, I want you to know that when they came to the Capitol, they presented themselves so very well."
Indeed, the governor told the students, "You did it the right way. You did your research. You did all of the things necessary to answer questions people would ask you about. Why is this important? What is the significance of it? And as a result of doing it the right way, being prepared and then talking to the legislators, you convinced them that this was a worthwhile piece of legislation."
Deal then explained why he agrees. While he was growing up in Sandersville, Ga., the white-tailed deer had "virtually disappeared in our state for a number of reasons," he said. "Probably, over-hunting was one of the reasons. As a result of that, a major undertaking was made several years ago by the state of Georgia through our Department of Natural Resources to repopulate the state of Georgia with white-tailed deer, and it has been a very successful project."
Folks chuckled as the governor added, "If you talk to some of the automobile insurance companies, they would probably tell you it has been more than a successful project."
"But, that being said," he continued, "they are a great resource for the state of Georgia."
Deal offered the following evidence: Approximately 11,600 jobs in Georgia are associated with the white-tailed deer, mostly in hunting, amounting to more than $58 million in state and local taxes.
Kevin was invited to join the dignitaries gathered around Deal as he signed the bill, and the governor awarded him one of the pens for a souvenir.
Kevin shrugged off his role in sparking this joyful journey and told the Ledger-Enquirer, "The first-graders took it on, and the rest is history."