06/09/2014 06:19 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2014

Junior State of America: 80 Years Strong

It's summer and you're a high school student, and you want to supplement your civics education. What to do? How about a three week college preparatory class taught by a college professor in Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics, making you eligible to sit for the AP exam the following Spring?

What if that three week session were held on a campus of one of the nation's finest universities structured around class time, assignments, papers, tests, guest speakers, field trips and fun activities?

Well that's exactly what 710 high school students did last summer and an equal number are on track to do this summer.

Who runs such a program? It's the Junior State of America (JSA), a national, non-partisan, non-profit, high school, student run organization with ten regional divisions and over 500,000 alumni since its founding in 1934. JSA is celebrating its 80th anniversary August 16th at the site where it all started.

Professor Ernest Rogers traveled from Minnesota to Northern California where he purchased a ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1910. On the site, he built structures in the pueblo adobe style and started a boarding school named The Montezuma Mountain School for Boys based on the guiding principal, "Make Democracy Work."

Keeping with a philosophy of student democracy and an adherence to social ethics, the school ran successfully for 45 years until 1955. In 1934, 24 years after its opening, Prof. Rogers and a group of students established JSA, the school's lasting legacy, along with the Montezuma Foundation run by its alumni.

From 1934 onward, JSA grew. As Jeff Harris, the organization's CEO explains, "After its founding, JSA spread to other schools in California and chapter presidents came to Montezuma to train for the next school year. It was when we opened our summer school program in the 80's in Washington D.C. that our national expansion began with students starting their own chapters."

Harris maintains, "The spirit of Prof. Rogers lives on. JSA teaches the art of self government to young people in order to preserve democracy. Staying rooted in a student-to-student, learn-by-doing model of education is really effective because young people tend to listen to young people. The debates and year round activities give students leadership development that comes from a chance to take responsibility for the organization and run it."

The 80th celebratory kickoff event in August includes a visit to JSA's annual Montezuma Leadership Summit. Other celebrations will be organized around JSA's three convention cycles during the 2014-2015 school year. Fall State in November with conventions across the county, Winter Congress in February with headline conventions in D.C. over three weekends plus four conventions across the country using the model congress format, and Spring State in April with conventions across the country. An 80th wrap up celebration is also in the works for Los Angeles in the spring of 2015.

Harris explains the significance of a year of celebrating, "Sure, we're leveraging the 80th. We want to reconnect with our hundreds of thousands of alumni who are spread across the country, and to some extent the world, and show them what JSA is now. We've done a lot in the last five to ten years to be vibrant in the digital age while staying true to our mission. I think a lot of people who were in JSA in high school in the 80's, like me, will find themselves blown away when they see the organization today."

There is the issue of exposure and student fundraising. "Local media spotlights student members from time to time," Harris says, "but it's not for lack of trying that national media attention hasn't come our way. While they focus on negative youth stories, we help young people make something of their passion for politics and government."

Harris continues, "When you help send politically engaged youth to a summer program, they come back better prepared to help in their community. Not all our alumni run for office, but they participate, they learn it's their right and responsibility to vote and figure out what's going on. People ask me all the time what young people care about, and I say, the same things adults care about -- they're informed, they follow the issues and they care. At some point, government or politics is going to enter their lives and we just want to prepare them for how to respond and make a difference on the issues that matter to them."

To attend JSA summer school, students submit academic records and must be accepted to the program. JSA provides partial scholarships and students raise the rest through contributions and fundraising efforts on their own behalf.

Harris knows they struggle and urges them not to give up, "We give them the tools and help them learn all the traditional methods of fundraising from family, folks in the community, service organizations, local businesses and letter writing. In 2011, we started using StayClassy, an online fundraising tool. It's been phenomenally effective - last year, students raised just shy of $300,000 through Stay Classy."

If someone you know is fundraising to attend, there is still time and a way to help him or her reach goal or offset their costs, and ensure the next 80 years of Prof. Rogers educational vision for civics and democracy.