HIGHLY REGARDED: Congressional Awards

By Res Peters

Credibility. We seek it with our legislator, our neighbor, and our mother-in-law. We strategize persuasive scenarios. We display research studies prominently on our coffee tables. The solar system dangles from our ceilings and extends into the yard. Our test scores are slipped in with Grandma's birthday gift. Overtly and subtly we attempt to convince our critics of the validity and even the wisdom of our nontraditional educational choice.

Yet, we often fail to recognize one endeavor that can honor all three of these skeptics, along with our children, in a meaningful and lasting way. And for most of us, this involves little more than keeping a written account of what we are already doing as a family.

Do your children invest time each week in music and in physical activity? Are they serving in the community? Do they camp out overnight? Then they are already fulfilling the requirements of the Congressional Award Medals.

Most of us are aware of the Medal of Honor, our nation's highest recognition for outstanding military valor. Few, however, realize that the Congress of the United States also awards bronze, silver, and gold medals to deserving youth, ages 14 to 23. These recipients have set and achieved goals in the four areas of personal development, physical fitness, voluntary public service, and expedition/exploration. And as the only civilian medals struck by Congress, these awards are highly regarded by colleges and universities for scholarships and admission, even at the Ph.D. level.

Because students set their own personally challenging goals that build character, this award allows our children to gain formal recognition for what they are already achieving. Personal development goals may include the pursuit of a new interest, or advancement to a higher level in an ongoing activity such as music, photography, Bible memorization, foreign language, or chess. This is an ideal way to involve a nearby Grandma in a common interest with her grandchildren. Does Grandma knit? Start selecting the yarn for the hand-knit sweaters they can make together.

Both individual activities and team sports may be used for physical fitness goals so long as they lead to greater fitness or improved performance. A combination of cross-training activities may be permitted to achieve a specific fitness goal such as an improved resting heart rate, strengthening, or endurance.

Voluntary public service activities must benefit the community and must be performed without compensation. Political and evangelistic activities are disallowed, but service provided to the community through a church, such as helping the elderly or a food drive, are acceptable. Time invested in providing medical care, constructing a building, or teaching literacy while on a mission trip could qualify, while teaching Vacation Bible School would not. Some students have formed service clubs where they together provide a variety of services to the community such as packing food boxes for the Salvation Army, sewing bears for pediatric ward patients, providing birthday parties for children in the homeless shelter, or building nesting boxes for the Department of Fish and Game. Volunteer work for home educator associations or other organizations is acceptable, but must not be political.

The expedition/exploration requirement is a one-time experience involving self-reliance, determination, and cooperation. A typical expedition is a wilderness experience that could include camping, climbing, backpacking, a bicycle tour, or a canoe trip. Usually the student works as part of a team in planning, training, and executing the expedition. Explorations immerse the student in an unfamiliar culture such as travel abroad, joining in a cattle roundup, or living with an Amish family. Students choose either an expedition or exploration for each medal. Is your neighbor a bow hunter? Enlist him for your fall expedition.

Adults play an important role in the Congressional Award program as validators and advisors. A non-family adult validator for each goal is chosen by the student, along with an advisor to help in setting goals which are achievable, measurable, challenging, and fulfilling. It is advisable when setting goals that students begin primarily with activities in which they are already involved to avoid being overwhelmed. As a student progresses through the medals, it becomes easier to delve into completely unfamiliar areas. Because the hours required for each level are cumulative, hours spent on one award are carried forward to the next level. With each award, activities may be continued to a higher level, or new interests may be explored. When goals are met, the advisor and validators sign the student's Record Book.

Upon completion of a medal, U.S. Congressional members present bronze and silver medals at state ceremonies. The Gold Medal Awards Ceremony is held in Washington, D.C., with the House and Senate leadership presiding and, in 2005, awarding 170 gold medals. Each year in Idaho, up to one half of the medals are awarded to home educated students. Even if Grandma lives in San Diego, she will be the first to book her flight. And if you invite your legislator, he will likely be asked to join the Congressmen on stage in presenting the awards.

It is possible to earn all three medals within two years with weekly commitments of: voluntary public service (4 hours), personal development (2 hours), physical fitness (2 hours), as well as one expedition/exploration per medal. Many home educating students are already exceeding these requirements. Students must be 14 years old to receive the bronze medal, and must complete the gold medal by their 24th birthday.

Students 13 ½ years old may begin accruing hours toward their medals as soon as they submit the registration form, posted at www.congressionalaward.org. And with two children who have successfully completed all three medals, the ICHE Congressional Award Chairman, Christy Bertsch, is well equipped to answer individual questions at (208) 375-2355.

Credibility? As a home school parent, you have the opportunity and responsibility to set your own graduation standards. These requirements may be as unique as your own family. Are you musical? You may require your children to be proficient in two instruments. Are you bilingual? Literacy in both languages may be your standard.

In our home school, earning all three Congressional Award Medals was a requirement for high school graduation. But more than the college acceptance letters, scholarships, and job offers that followed, our children would maintain that it was the character developed and experience gained that they value most. And the Congress of the United States, along with our most ardent skeptics, would agree.

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