Bethlehem students part of a conversation with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

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What if you told a sitting Supreme Court justice that your dream was to one day have her job and she offered it to you on the spot?

Believe it or not, that happened to BCHS senior Ella O’Brien on Thursday, May 9, when Ella and four other Bethlehem Central High School students had the extraordinary opportunity to participate in a virtual question-and-answer session with U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The Q & A session was part of a day-long Civics Convocation hosted by the New York State Bar Association entitled “To Safeguard Our Democracy: Making the Case for Civics Education.” The Bethlehem students were part of a small contingent of local high school students chosen to represent New York’s leaders of tomorrow at the event. Other local schools participating included Albany High School and Shenendehowa High School. The event was held in downtown Albany.

The students attended panel discussions that included several federal and state judges, elected officials, policy advisors, and New York State Education Commissioner Dr. Betty Rosa in conversations about cultivating informed and engaged citizens.

However, the culminating session with Justice Sotomayor made the day one to remember for the BC students. Sotomayor paid a virtual visit to the students that lasted nearly an hour and a half, where she fielded questions and offered advice on issues ranging from discrimination to artificial intelligence to social media, and discussed some of the most pressing issues facing the country and the high court. 

A fun exchange between Justice Sotomayor and BC’s Ella O’Brien lightened the serious subject matter.

When O’Brien approached the microphone to ask the high court justice a question, co-chair of the Task Force on 2024 Civics Convocation Christopher Riano, who was the emcee of the session, asked the BC senior to share her long-term goals with Sotomayor. 

“My dream job is actually your job,” said O’Brien. “I would love to be a Supreme Court justice someday.”

“Ella, come take my place please,” Justice Sotomayor said with a smile.

O’Brien was later interviewed by WAMC Public Radio. 

Social studies department supervisor Nick Petraccione, who oversees the social studies curriculum in grades K-12, accompanied the students to the Albany event.

“One of the goals of the Civics Convocation is to raise the standard of civic literacy for all and civics education for our students,” said Petraccione. “We are fortunate in Bethlehem to have standards for civic participation and civic readiness that are well ahead of the curve.

“All BC students are required to take Participation in Government or our Syracuse University Public Affairs/Policy (SUPA) course and complete at least 20 hours of community service. They all must attend at least one Board of Education meeting and one town government meeting,” said Petraccione. “One of the takeaways I heard expressed by our students at the end of our day in Albany, was ‘I think we are already doing a lot of this civics work.’

“I could not argue with them because it’s true that BC has always prioritized civics education and active citizenship,” said Petraccione, who will retire in June after 20 years in the district and 32 years of teaching. “But I tell students often that there is always more work that can be done to make our community and the world a better place, especially for those without a voice, so we can have meaningful and thoughtful conversations when dealing with difficult and complicated topics.”

Watch the Q & A Session with U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor.