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June 5, 2020

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How one high school’s all-male honors class is introducing students to government

Ruben Kihuen at Shadow Ridge

Steve Marcus

U.S. government teacher Matt Nighswonger introduces Congressman Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev) to his all-male, honors class at Shadow Ridge High School Monday, Oct. 16, 2017.

Ruben Kihuen at Shadow Ridge

Congressman Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev) speaks with an all-male, honors U.S. government class at Shadow Ridge High School Monday, Oct. 16, 2017. Launch slideshow »

Zane Shelton, 17, sat in a north valley trailer-turned-classroom Monday, bouncing question after question off Rep. Ruben Kihuen as part of an interview session with the first-term U.S. congressman.

It’s one of four elected officials who Shelton, a senior track athlete at Shadow Ridge High School, has been able to interact with during the past two months as part of a new, males-only honors U.S. government class.

“I appreciate when someone in a position like that can give stories of how they lived because I see them as important figures to our state and city,” Shelton said. “At the same time, they’re still people like the rest of us and once sat where we’re sitting.”

The class was established by assistant football coach Matt Nighswonger and features 30 seniors — more than half are athletes — who might not otherwise have taken an honors-level government class. Nighswonger started the course this semester as a way to encourage more male participation in the subject and to challenge students who’d otherwise want to cruise through their final semesters with an easier course load.

“It’s an experimental all-male class because we’ve seen the number of males in these types of classes go way down,” Nighswonger said. “These guys are very capable and their teachers have nominated them.”

At Shadow Ridge, Nighswonger says the recent trend in honors and Advanced Placement classes has included a shrinking number of male students, to the point where it’s “disproportional” with female students taking higher-level classes. For annual awards, like valedictorian, salutatorian and departmental honors, Nighswonger said girl recipients at Shadow Ridge outnumber boys by as much as 5-to-1.

But with the new boys-only class, both Nighswonger and his students report a more relaxed learning environment, including the elimination of male students more concerned with getting the attention of a female classmate over learning. It is one of three honors U.S. government Nighswonger teaches — the other two are co-ed.

That openness has produced more participation from those who are otherwise soft-spoken in their co-ed classes, students in the all-male class said.

“In my other classes, the girls are usually the ones that debate while the dudes usually keep quiet,” said Dream’e McCoy, 18. “But in this one, the guys aren’t afraid to speak up and have debates.”

In addition to Kihuen, the class has also welcomed Nevada Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, state Sen. Scott Hammond and former Assemblyman Paul Anderson.

On Monday, Kihuen stood in a light blue button-up shirt, cracking jokes and sharing stories on everything from entering politics to maintaining dating relationships while managing a work-life balance. He spoke candidly during the 80-minute class, but also addressed serious topics like this month’s mass shooting and gun control, as students in varsity jackets and sweat pants listened intently around him.

Kihuen, who starred as a soccer player at Rancho High School and aspired to play professionally, said he’d never taken any interest in government before knocking on doors for Sen. Harry Reid’s campaign as part of an extra credit project in high school.

When a foot injury derailed his soccer career, Kihuen said he ventured into politics “to make a difference.” He encouraged students on Monday to do the same in their future career fields — whether that be in a public position or elsewhere.

“People in government are making decisions that affect me, so I figured I might as well get engaged,” Kihuen said of his decision to choose politics.

McCoy and football player Kaejin Smith, 17, were among 15 students to ask Kihuen a question. They called the experience “enriching,” and said it piqued their interest to learn more about government. Above all, the two felt honored to be the school’s only class to speak with and listen to the elected officials representing their neighborhoods.

“It’s cool that some of them come from the same background as us,” Smith said. “You have to have thick skin to do what these guys are doing.”