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The Classroom Becomes a Political Arena

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Washington--The issue is the redevelopment of James Park, a port city, and the arguments have just begun.

Kenyetta Coner, representing the city's business interests, urges adoption of the developer's proposal. Without a thriving business sector she says "there will be no taxes and the city will die."

"We need wealthy people to return to James Park," she adds. To stimulate the city's "gentrification," her proposal calls for zoning throughout the city to accommodate hospitals, restaurants, hotels, an insurance company, a shopping center and mall, condominiums, and a city park.

Under her plan, the city's rental housing would be removed because, she says, "We need people who will pay taxes" and because residents in existing rental property "were just tearing them down."

Her proposal draws immediate criticism. Micheal Beasley, representing a local citizens group, charges that Ms. Coner's proposal does not address the needs of the poor. "They just don't care about the poor," she says of the business community.

Moving Back to the City

Felicia Ricks, director of the city's planning office, disagrees, saying she supports Ms. Coner's proposal because it would encourage middle-class families to move back to the city. "I feel that everyone can live in James Park, not just the poor," she says.

James Park is a fictitious city, and the speakers at this mock hearing are 7th and 8th graders from Jefferson Junior High School's gifted and talented program. They are participating in an unusual exercise designed to increase political awareness and involvement among black students.

For the past five months, the students have been learning about a vast array of political issues--from voting rights to the ideological differences between the Democratic and Republican parties--through a special pilot program called the "Civic Awareness Project."

Relying heavily on role-playing and group discussions, the program attempts to teach the students not only the American political process, but also the importance of their involvement when they become adults.

The concept was first developed in 1979 by the Washington-based Joint Center for Political Studies (jcps), a non-profit research organization formed to address economic and political issues that affect blacks and other minorities, in response to the alarmingly low participation rate of blacks in the 1976 elections.

In that election year, only 23 percent of the nation's black youths between the ages of 18 and 20 voted. About 32 percent of black youths between the ages of 21 and 24 voted.

Figures from a recent report by the Census Bureau indicate that the participation rate did not improve much in the 1980 elections.

Based on the agency's 1980 household survey, about 25.3 percent of the 18-20-year-old blacks in this country voted and about 34 percent of those between the ages of 21 and 24 voted.

In an effort to determine the reason for the low rate of participation in those age groups and to help students understand the potential impact of participating in community and political activities, the jcps launched the Youth Leadership Development Program in 1979 under the direction of Louise E. Taylor, then jcps staff member. Ms. Taylor, who directs the program at Jefferson, now has her own education-related consulting firm.

That year, the jcps enrolled 28 students from 12 Washington high schools in a series of seminars devoted to major poltical and social issues.

The program was so well received, according to Ms. Taylor, that the organization decided to extend it to eight cities throughout the country.

Funded with Grants

The project was funded with grants from the Education Department, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Labor Department, and the Community Services Administration.

But Ms. Taylor said she also wanted to involve blacks who had dropped out of school, so she conducted another series of seminars for some of them. The Jefferson Junior High pilot program, she notes, was instituted at the suggestion of the high-school dropouts who had participated in the first series and urged that future political awareness seminars begin with younger students.

During the 1980 school year, Ms. Taylor approached the administrators at the Jefferson school with a six-week curriculum designed for junior-high students. The following year it was expanded to a full semester.

While the weekly political discussions have most often taken place in the classroom, the 7th, 8th, and 9th graders have broadened their perspective and understanding by observing neighborhood meetings and serving as volunteers with various community-action organizations.

'Mentor Relationships'

Members of the Washington chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, a black social-service organization, have requested that students from the project accompany them to local meetings, according to Ms. Taylor. She said this also helps the students build "mentor relationships."

At one neighborhood meeting, the students learned that the vacant lot across from their school was being considered for development, according to Ms. Taylor. She said the situation offered them the opportunity to examine how a favorable decision for the developers would affect them personally.

This week, each of the students from the program is scheduled to visit Capitol Hill and to accompany a member of the Congressional Black Staffers Association for a day to familiarize themselves with the legislative process.

"The community has found the richness of the students as resources,'' Ms. Taylor said of the local response to the program's efforts. "It's an investment in human capital to be involved with young people who will be able to participate in the community."

Through classroom exercises such as the mock public hearing to redevelop James Park, the students have learned to express themselves, according to their teacher, Mary H. Gill. "They are very verbal now and can write analyses and examine situations."

They have become aware of what will be expected of them as young adults, she says. "They want to participate in local campaigns, and they are aware of what's going on in politics. And there's no doubt in my mind that they will become involved in politics."

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