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Students at Acera School in Winchester tackle world issues

Students at Winchester’s Acera School study the issues of their assigned countries to prepare for this weekend’s Model UN Conference.

Photos by Jessica Rinaldi for The Boston Globe

Students at Winchester’s Acera School study the issues of their assigned countries to prepare for this weekend’s Model UN Conference.

Huddled in groups in a large room with numerous nooks and cubbies, delegates of several countries with varying borders and sensibilities brooded over heady topics facing the 21st century world.

A representative of Japan contemplated the troubling issue of human trafficking; an agent of South Africa considered the growing concerns in North Korea and the 20-plus-year civil strife in Somalia; an ambassador of Sudan investigated his country’s illegal weapons training and paramilitary groups.

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This wasn’t a formal assembly of the United Nations with its 193 member states – even though those gathered here spoke authoritatively and in impassioned detail.

These delegates were all under age 13.

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All students at the Acera School in Winchester, they study the UN’s policies, procedures, and deliberations as part of their regular curriculum. On Saturday and Sunday, they will get the opportunity to display their knowledge of civics, diplomacy, and debate at the Boston University Academy Model UN Conference.

“It’s a nice window into what other countries think,” said Max Paul, a well-spoken and energetic Medford 12-year-old who will represent Sudan at the event.

Model UN is a core component at Acera in Winchester, an independent STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) school founded in 2010 for “high-ability” students in grades K to 8.

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To qualify for admission, students have to have an IQ of 130 or above; score between 95 and 99 percent on state and national achievement tests; perform above their expected grade levels in several subjects; or exhibit overall “creative giftedness.” Students supply their own laptops, and tuition for the current school year is $14,500 for elementary school and $14,750 for middle school, according to the school’s website.

Through nontraditional, multiage classrooms and project-based learning techniques, the goal is to foster students to “think about their role in the world,” said founder and codirector Courtney Dickinson. “We want to have the kids emerge on the world stage as citizens.”

This isn’t the first time students have had the chance to show off their intricate understanding of global issues. In November, 23 Acera middle-schoolers participated in a model UN event held at Northeastern University in partnership with the United Nations Association of Greater Boston. Four students – Paul, Jasmine Dimaculangan of Medford, Thomas Mayer of Waltham, and Elizabeth Mulgrew de Laire of Carlisle – came away with outstanding delegation awards, the highest award given. Fittingly, they were honored with gavels.

For the upcoming conference, each student has been assigned a country to represent, a committee to sit on, and a complicated topic to debate – anything from the war on drugs to maintaining political stability in Venezuela following Hugo Chavez’s death. Their country will take a position, or not.

“It’s been a great experience for me,” said Mayer, 12, who is tackling issues of the United Kingdom.

On a recent morning, Mayer and his classmates spread out with their Mac laptops – personalized with Red Sox, Patriots, and Newbury Comics stickers – in a large, carpeted room with couches, chairs, loft seats, and private office areas in lieu of traditional desks and rows of seats.

“A huge part of this is discovery on their own,” said Sean Ingle, a middle school interdisciplinary teacher, who has a diverse background in political science, engineering, and government lobbying, as he occasionally asked and answered questions to spark discussions.

In one area, students studied key historical figures and events and their impact on the present, such as Roman politicians and military leaders Gaius Flaminius and Marcus Claudius Marcellus.

Meanwhile, in one of the offices, a small group tackled the ongoing nuclear threat posed by North Korea to its southern neighbor and the rest of the world, as well as the two-decades-long civil war in Somalia.

“I found a folio on Somalian propaganda,” said Owen Murray, 12, of Melrose, who will speak on behalf of South Africa at the conference.

“Please tell me that’s a joke?” Benjamin Grayzel, 12, of Winchester, said quizzically as he examined the e-mailed document.

“No, that’s Somali propaganda.”

Murray, a pair of headphones slung around his neck, explained South Africa’s neutral stance on North Korea: “They don’t want to be a part of it. They want to stay out of it.”

Next door, in an adjacent room, another group took on the similarly heavy topics of illegal weapons training and human trafficking.

“You just want to find a plan that suits your country’s best interest,” said Eamon Szostak, 13, of Boston, examining both issues from Japan’s perspective. “Because generally, countries are self-centered.”

Human trafficking is a “pretty big problem” in Japan, he said. Overall, it’s been interesting to examine things from the mindset of a country that isn’t “big and powerful,” and has to use the means of “pacifism and cooperation” to get things done, he said.

As for Sudan’s significant dilemma with human trafficking?

“We dismiss them,” Max Paul said succinctly.

“That’s what all governments do, is deny things,” Szostak rebutted. “They don’t like it, they deny it.”

Similarly, across the Red Sea and the vast plains of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates has a “pretty serious problem” with illegal weapons training and human trafficking, which it is trying to rectify, according to Julia Urquiola, 13, of Melrose. “But,” she noted, “they have quite a long ways to go.”

Mayer reported that human trafficking isn’t a huge priority in the United Kingdom – but it’s also not the type of news that would dominate US headlines. Unless, he added, it had an impact here.

With a shrug, he said of the experience, “I wouldn’t otherwise have known about the UK’s position and policy.”

Taryn Plumb can be reached at tarynplumb1@gmail.com.
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