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Skeptical Teens' Political Apathy Vexes Teachers

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Charlotte, N.C.

Sherrill Curtis is in the middle of his seventh presidential election.

He talks about political strategy, spouts off about ideology, lectures on turnout. But he is most familiar with an Election Day outcome that doesn't get reported in the next day's news: the interest level among the high school students he teaches--most of whom are too young to vote.

Frustration pours out as Mr. Curtis, the chairman of the social studies department at tony Providence High School outside Charlotte, sums up the political interest among the public school's 2,500 students.

"Youngsters today are just not that interested in the elections," he said between classes. "There's a feeling that the whole political process is incidental--just another 'thing' in the overall culture.

"They've come of age in the post-Watergate, post-Cold War era of political cynicism, scandals, and sound bites," he said. "And they're skeptical, always asking 'What's the real scoop?'--assuming they're not getting the truth in the first place."

Mr. Curtis' views echo those of many high school teachers, who, even with carefully tailored curricula and a multitude of national programs designed to fuse their students' young lives with politics, find it hard to overcome the political apathy of many of today's teenagers.

With a metro-area population of 1.75 million, Charlotte is the largest city between Washington and Atlanta. The banking industry in Charlotte is in the leagues of New York and Washington, and the breakneck pace of growth in the city and its suburban rings is evident by omnipresent construction workers and bulldozers.

In Charlotte, and all through the state, the political season is in full bloom. High-profile races for the U.S. Senate, Congress, governor, and attorney general share the spotlight with President Clinton and Bob Dole.

But despite the campaigning that began in the spring--and youth-engagement efforts ranging from MTV's star-studded "Choose or Lose" to the school-based program Kids Voting--teenagers here find plenty of reasons to be indifferent.

In the library at West Mecklenburg High School, senior Tayvia Spratt, 17, gives a puzzled look and thinks a second before waxing on the 1996 election.

"It doesn't seem right," she deadpanned, "that behind the White House--a phat house--there is a ghetto full of problems."

The inner city problems of Washington also play out in various pockets of Charlotte--and offer little reason for faith in politicians that ignore them, she explained.

"We have crime, homeless people, and girls having babies. But do the politicians do anything about it? No. They just talk and talk and promote themselves."

Ms. Spratt, who calls herself a moderate, said she would take notice if politicians "did something real" to address the issues she sees as most dire. But "they don't say stuff that really matters," she said.

Lack of Charisma

She and other students here describe a field of "been there" candidates running in major races who have failed to capture the youth constituency.

In contrast to his 1992 race, when he donned star shades, played the saxophone, and schmoozed with rock 'n' roll stars, Mr. Clinton appears more staid and less hip, many young people here say. And many say that Mr. Dole, the Republican challenger, lacks both the charisma and the message that appeal to them. Statewide races, offer a similar pool of older, mostly male, mostly "career" politicians, they say.

A recent Gallup Youth Poll found political apathy among teenagers nearing that of the late 1960s and its "turn on, tune in, and drop out" youth counterculture.

The poll found that of more than 500 13- to 17-year-olds surveyed, only two out of three teens anticipated becoming regular voters, and nearly half believed there was no reason to vote if you did not like the candidates. One in four surveyed thought all politicians are about the same. And one in four believed it really didn't matter who won a local election.

As in the past, such detachment could play out at the polls when these young people come of age, experts say.

Elusive Constituency

The youth vote has traditionally been hard to predict, and even harder to rely on. Before the 1992 election, voting rates among eligible youths had declined with every election since 1972, the first year 18-year-olds could vote.

The 50 percent of eligible young people who voted in 1972 fell to 37 percent by 1988. But the 1992 presidential election was an exception. More young voters--44 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds--cast ballots than in the previous 20 years. (Overall turnout was 55 percent.) But youth participation plummeted again in 1994, when not even a third of eligible young voters cast ballots.

Many of the seniors in Charlotte high schools eligible to vote in this election plan to do so, but with mixed emotions.

The excitement that West Mecklenburg senior Jason Roberts, 18, feels about voting in his first election has been tempered this fall by the predictability of the outcome and the rhetoric, he said.

It's not that he doesn't care, he explained. "It just hasn't been very exciting." Candidates haven't reached out and addressed the things important to him, he said, like employment, education and financial aid.

"I've got college to worry about," he said.

Us Vs. Them

Teachers, politicians, and political activists are looking for a solution. In public service announcements, teen icons like rock stars, sports heroes, and twentysomething actors promote the idea that "voting is way cool." And teachers are using curriculum additives like Kids Voting, which districts in North Carolina and in 40 other states use to teach young people about political issues and the voting process. ("Mock Elections, Voter Programs Seek To Plug In Tuned-Out Students," This Week's News.)

But judging by the attitudes of many Charlotte students, young people aren't responding.

Curtis Gans, the executive director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, based in Washington, says those worried about such attitudes shouldn't be focused on why young people are not interested. He asks, instead, "Why would they be?"

"Information doesn't breed affinity," he said. "There are bigger things going on in the culture. Thanks to television, and the lack of centrality of churches and other institutions, kids today are more passive, more fragmented, more self-seeking, and more cynical than they have ever been.

"And, in this election, there's nothing of consequence being offered up to them. We have one party way to the right whose message has no resonance with young people, and another without a durable message at all."

Teenagers who become uneasy when they are asked about elections or political parties end up using one word a lot: "they."

Steve Yanacsek, a 17-year-old senior at West Mecklenburg High with black stripes dyed in his hair, is earnest as he explains that this fall's political debate is "totally remote" from his day-to-day life.

"They seem to be trying to make personal choices for people instead of talking about stuff that matters, like crime and schools," he said. "Just getting to school and surviving is a challenge here."

Violence is a big concern at the 1,500-student high school.

Classmate Alicia Byrd, 16, said she has little patience for most of the backbiting and exaggeration that seem to go with any campaign season. "They're going to say what they want you to hear, just to get the vote" she said. "If they actually do something, then I start to listen."

'Democracy Isn't Efficient'

Sonya McInnis, a social studies teacher at J.T. Williams Middle School here, has spent much of this year focusing on the political parties and process and hoping students will listen. One day recently, in her final class of the day, she asked groups of 9th graders to define the political parties and gauge how their own beliefs fit in to the debate.

"What issues are most important? And why?" she asked the class. "Job opportunity? Education for all? Crime? The budget? Health care? The environment?"

"It can be tough," she said after class. "This generation wants things in an instant. They hate to wait. If they can't see results right away, they have no interest in what's being discussed. They don't understand that a democracy isn't efficient."

A large part of the malaise may be due to the fact that many teenagers are the children of parents who don't vote. The challenge for educators is to overcome the likelihood that such lack of interest will be passed on to a second generation.

For Betsy Williamson, the coordinator of the K-12 social studies program for the 92,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, teaching students about the democratic process early is the best way to break the cycle.

The district's goal, she said, is to "give kids the tools to cut through the jargon and put things in context." This year, students are learning how to decipher the hidden message in political ads, what a "photo op" is, and how a political platform is decided, she said.

"We want to train students early to become literate voters," she said.

The Kids Voting curriculum that teachers in the county have adopted this political season allows students in all grades to go to official polls on election day and cast a mock vote. Results will be prominently reported by the local media.

The program is intended to instill lifetime voting habits in young people and boost turn-out among their parents and guardians, who accompany the students to the polls.

Jeff Williams, a 17-year-old senior at Providence High whose serious demeanor and carefully chosen words defy his age, concedes that among his peers "apathy is a problem."

"Kids feel like the issues have nothing to do with them, or they think elections don't matter," he said. "And because the issues aren't put in kid terms, it takes a lot of initiative on the part of a young person to understand.

"Many aren't willing," he said.

Mr. Williams said he is encouraged by the efforts of programs like Kids Voting and recent interest among his classmates in the school's Teenage Republican Club, of which he is a proud member.

"I'm optimistic that the apathy can be solved," he said. "I read Newsweek each week to keep up on things. I know most of the issues involved in this election--education, crime prevention, drug abuse.

"And I wish I could vote in this election," he added. "I really think that's key."

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