Social Studies

Program Makes Elections Relevant for Students

By John Gehring — November 06, 2002 3 min read

Richard Ciceron couldn’t vote this week in the election for governor of New York, but the 12-year-old spent the past few months analyzing campaign ads and even grilled representatives of the candidates at a town hall forum.

Elections 2002

Like some 1,000 other middle school students from the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island boroughs of New York City, the 7th grader is involved with a local program called Election Connection. It teaches young people about the democratic process and aims to spark their interest in contemporary politics.

Students in the program, run by the New York City- based Teaching Matters, a nonprofit group that trains teachers in the use of technology, even had their own mock, online election before adult voters went to the polls Nov. 5.

The students in the heavily Democratic city selected Democrat H. Carl McCall, with 48 percent of the vote, as governor. Republican incumbent George E. Pataki came in second, with 31 percent of the votes, while B. Thomas Golisano, running on the Independence Party ticket, received 15 percent. Four percent of the students had no opinion.

The young “voters” also ranked education as the issue that should be the governor’s top priority.

When Richard, who attends the Essence School for Citizens of a Global Community, a public school in Brooklyn, went to a recent forum for gubernatorial candidates’ representatives, he was ready with a question.

“Why do schools in poor neighborhoods get less funds than schools in richer neighborhoods?” he asked Fernando Ferrer, a former Bronx borough president and one-time mayoral candidate who was representing Mr. McCall. Richard wanted to know if it was a case of racism, or something else.

Mr. Ferrer, the young student recalled, told him that education was a top concern for all the candidates, and that the city was trying to direct funds equally.

“I think some politicians think kids are not educated enough to vote,” said Richard, who told his teachers he has learned that politicians have a knack for fudging the truth. “The politicians don’t always address issues that kids would be interested in.”

Along with 99 percent of his classmates at his East New York school, Richard voted for Mr. McCall. He said he related to the state comptroller’s background growing up poor and without a father.

Making Politics Relevant

Election Connection, which is financed by the New York City Council and the Consolidated Edison Company of New York, hopes to get students thinking early about the importance of voting and political participation.

A recent study conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University found the number of older Americans who planned to vote on Nov. 5 outnumbered that of people younger than 30 by more than
2-to- 1.

The program is one of several such campaigns nationally.

This fall, for example, the Service Employees International Union Education and Support Fund and the Sierra Club have teamed up to create “Vote for Children.” The new program is working in 13 cities around the country to engage students in the political process by having them learn about the importance of voting in school and organizing get-out-the-vote campaigns in their communities.

Besides analyzing campaign ads, following polling data, and learning about the news media’s role in covering elections, students involved with Election Connection in New York were encouraged to accompany their parents to the polls on
Election Day.

Jennifer Charles, a senior professional developer with Teaching Matters who has been helping to implement the 12-week Election Connection curriculum, says the program helps students start to think critically about what it means to be an engaged citizen.

“Students begin to see elections and politics as relevant,” she said. “They’re not just learning about these issues in an abstract way, but as something that is related to the society around them. It becomes much more relevant and immediate.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Program Makes Elections Relevant for Students

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