Making Their Voices Heard,
I had been thinking was that the old ways
of learning about campaigns were not working. Eight years ago, I wrote
a book describing the dismal media coverage of Philadelphias 1991
mayoral campaign: the seven-second sound bites on TV with one candidate
calling another a drunk, the newspaper stories that focused almost completely
on strategy and the "horse race." And I knew that with commercial
pressures tightening, it was unlikely to be better this year. I also understood
the effects of such coverage. Research by Dean Jamieson and Dr. Joseph
Cappella, professor of communication, has shown that news focused on strategy
raises the level of public cynicism and hampers the ability to learn about
It was bad enough that adults
were getting turned off to politics, but watching my own two kids, I began
to worry more about the future generation. At ages 10 and 12, my sons
were getting most of what they called "news" from ESPNs
SportsCenter. How were they ever going to learn to be good citizens?
That concern only deepened when I read a survey by the National Association
of Secretaries of State showing that only about a third of young people
between the ages of 18 and 24 had voted in the 1996 presidential election,
compared to 50 percent in 1972and the figure was down to 15 percent
in the 1998 congressional elections. According to the survey, young people
werent voting because they didnt feel they knew enough about
the issues. They werent learning about civics in school, or discussing
politics with their parents, or keeping up with the news. Whats
more, they didnt feel that candidates were listening to their concerns.
The report warned that we might be losing democracys next generation.
And thats when the
idea came to me. Maybe there was a way to get young people excited about
politics and the news and, in the process, change the way all of us learn
about campaigns. What if you encouraged high-school students, as a class
project, to study campaigns, and used computers and the Internet to make
it as much fun as playing a videogame? Newspapers and newscasts might
be wedded to the old ways, but the World Wide Web was terra nova.
Not only could the Web carry much more information on candidates and positions,
but there were all kinds of possibilities for chat rooms and click-polls
and surfing through archives and talking back through e-mailthings
that might make civic participation really fun for kids.
These musings were to become
reality sooner than I ever expected. In October 1998 the Annenberg Public
Policy Center was awarded a $1 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts
to raise the level of the discourse in Philadelphias upcoming mayoral
campaign. The project was called The Philadelphia Compact, and it would
convene citizen forums, host debates and survey Philadelphians about issues.
When I heard about the Compact, I asked the dean if she had any interest
in using the Internet to stimulate political discourse in city schools.
She jumped at the idea and decided to fund it through the Public Policy
Center. "Lets put a computer in every public high school in
the city and have the students use it to study the campaign," she
said. The details she would leave to me.
before Sam Katzs visit to University City High School, I had inklings
that getting public school students hooked up to the Internet and excited
about the mayoral campaign would have its rough patches. At a January
23 training session for teachers at the Philadelphia Inquirer building
on North Broad Street, we hit the first.
The training day had been
planned as an orientation and pep rally for the 33 public teachersone
from almost every high school in the citywhom we had managed to
recruit within one short month. School Superintendent David Hornbeck L71
opened the day by offering his support to the project, and then Philadelphias
current mayor, Ed Rendell C65, spoke for 30 minutes about the need
to focus students on the issues of the campaign, and how a candidates
leadership qualities and even his or her ability to serve as a cheerleader
for the city were crucial also. But when he invited questions, the first
was, "Do you expect us to get a salary increase in our next contract?"
and the second was, "How could you have possibly extended Superintendent
Hornbecks contract for an additional year without consulting teachers?"
So much for pure pedagogical interest in a new educational project, I
Soon, it was my turn to get
up and describe how the project would actually work. "The school
district is going to supply each of your classrooms with a computer with
Internet access," I explained. We had been told that there was no
need for us to buy new computers; that it would be better if we provided
each class with a stipend. "Philadelphia Online, the online arm of
the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, has created a
Web site for the project, with links to all kinds of campaign information.
Your students will be able to use the site to read candidates position
papers and daily news coverage. Theyll be able to search for stories
in the archives, and even to discuss the campaign online with other schools.
And once we get off the ground, youll get a media partnera
television or radio station or a newspaperto help your students
make their voices heard. In fact, weve decided to call the project
Student Voices in Campaign 99." I looked out at
a sea of skeptical faces.
When I sat down, a veteran
teacher from Bok Technical School leaned over and warned, "Theres
going to be a problem. Most of us dont have phone lines in our classrooms.
And its not going to be easy to get them in."
He was right. The computers
the district planned to install would be reconditioned machines, old and
slow, and the majority of the classrooms had no phone lines. We did need
to buy each class a brand new computer after all, configure themand,
in many cases, make deliveries to teachers. At the same time, we had to
nag the school district to work with Bell Atlantic to get phone lines
into each classroom.
While we worked to get the
students online, I went to see some of the classrooms. One teacher, a
year from retirement, said hed like me to see the obstacles he faced.
He said that everyone in his schools working-class neighborhood
who could "get out" had, and that it was hard to make much progress
with the students who were left. When I visited his class, he was going
over an assignment in which students had been asked to interview family
members about the issues they cared about.
"Megan, who did you
"Good. What issues did
she say concerned her?"
"Okay, what about crime?"
"I dunno. Crime. Thats
all she said."
"Well, is there anything
you yourself think about crime?"
When the class was over,
the teacher looked almost pleased. "You see what I mean?" he
I left the school thinking
how naive I had been. When I conceived this project, I had pictured my
own middle-class, private-school-educated kids. How could I have thought
it would work with deeply under-achieving public-school students living
in poverty? "Everyone who could get out has. This is what is left,"
the teacher had said. Could we accomplish our lofty goals with what was
leftwith or without computers and the Internet?
But there was no turning
back. The computers were on order and teachers were already calling me
to find out who their media partners were. We had a great Web site pouring
out campaign information and linking directly to the candidates
sites. By early March, all the computers had been delivered and many phone
lines installed. Most of the students and many teachers had never used
the Internet before. There was some satisfaction in realizing that they
were going on the Internet for the first time to learn how to become better
citizens. We were on our way.
of the first things I
had done in January was to write to the mayoral candidates to ask their
help in getting students turned on to the Web. I even sent them an article
from the Florida Times-Union, describing how Jeb Bush had used
the Internet in his successful campaign for governor of Florida, including
creating a "School Zone" on his Web site for students studying
few days later, I was delighted to see that most of the candidates were
already setting up Web sites and that Democratic candidate Dwight Evans
site featured a "Student Center," designed "especially
for those students following Philadelphias mayoral race." Wow,
I thought. Somebodys actually listening. The kids were going to
have a lot of fun with the interactive parts of this site, I thought.
The Web site had been set up by Evans
deputy campaign manager, David Sirota, who later e-mailed me to suggest
that his candidate unveil it in one of our classes. I talked to teacher
Bob Lemoine at Germantown High, who I knew had a functioning computer,
and we set up a visit for February 26. Unfortunately, the date turned
out to be a few days after the school district faxed its "no TV cameras
in schools" policy to every principal in the system. "Im
really sorry, but I dont think we can make this a real media event,"
I told Sirota. But Evans, a state representative, wanted to come to Germantown
anyway. It was his alma mater, and he liked talking to students.
And so on February 26, Evans arrived at Germantown
Highto an empty classroom, the result of yet another of those assemblies
I came to hate. But he didnt seem to care. He chatted with me about
news coverage of the campaign and answered questions about his Web site
from Annenberg School graduate student Jenny Stromer-Galley. Jenny was
doing her dissertation on candidates use of the Internet and had
been most impressed with the sophistication of the Evans site. "You
have to come down to my campaign office and meet David Sirota, the young
man who set up the whole Web site," Evans said. "Hes in
his twenties, but let me tell you, hes a whiz at this stuff."
Finally, the students filed in, and the questions
began. "Mr. Evans, my name is Maya Cox. I would like to know why
you support school vouchers and how you think that would help the public
Evans, perched on a stool at the front of the
class, listened carefully. "Im not so much for vouchers as
I am for choice," he said. He started out speaking in the language
of a politician reciting his position, but seemed to sense the students
were not quite getting it. "Listen," he said, pointing to one
of the girls, "that young lady is wearing, what color is your blouse?
Its great, by the way."
"Chartreuse," she answered with a
"Chartreuse. Well, she got to choose what
color blouse she was wearing this morning, and thats all Im
saying to youI want to give families more choice in where their
kids are going to school."
The questions continued and Evans worked hard
at answering in terms the kids could understand. He said that some students
needed to think about setting up their own businesses, which led into
his ideas for neighborhood economic development. He talked about government
not always being the answer and about how neighborhood residents needed
to get involved in improving conditions for themselves.
The students were rapt. The bell rang and not
one of them moved. Lemoine asked Evans if he had more time and the candidate
said hed stay until every question was answered.
For the first time I began to think the project
might work. With good teachers guiding them in their research, students
at neighborhood high schools could ask excellent questionsand they
seemed genuinely interested in learning the answers. And the candidates
were not only willing to come talk, they were actively trying to teach
the students. My only regret was that no TV cameras had been there to
witness it. Not once in 1991 had this kind of substantive discussion of
how to tackle the citys problems made it into media coverage of
I floated back to campus and the excitement
lingereduntil the next morning, when I picked up the Inquirer
and saw a photograph of a dejected Dwight Evans filling three-quarters
of the front page. "Rep. Evans Shakes Up Staff Over Web Site Dirty
Trick," read the headline. Someone had created a fake Web page for
another Democratic candidate, John White Jr., posting damaging racial
comments White was said to have offered in a Latino newspaper. And that
someone, the story revealed, turned out to be a friend of David Sirota.
Evans had immediately fired Sirota, and plans for the Web site, the story
said, were on hold.
Well, I thought glumly, there goes my "Student