Voices Heard, continued
quest for media partners was in some ways the most crucial piece of the
project. Every time a class was featured in a neighborhood newspaper,
every time kids saw themselves on TV, I knew it would make them feel important
and spur them on to greater things. Whats more, it seemed a great
way to sneak issues into campaign coverage. Luckily, it also turned out
to be the easiest piece. Everybody was looking for a new angle on the
campaign, and teenagers studying the race made a good story. And asking
even the most hard-driving media professionals to do something for kids
seemed to guarantee the answer would be yes.
The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Online
set up a project Web site that was a model of a new kind of journalism.
Yes, there were headlines focused on fundraising and endorsements, but
they were submerged beneath others on the candidates stands on key
issues. Students were able to search databases to see how bad, say, the
crime rate was in their neighborhood and vote using click-polls after
reading background on a campaign issue. The Daily News offered
to create a Youth Editorial Board; the citys African-American newspaper,
the Tribune, agreed to run student op-ed pieces; and radio stations
like Power99 and WIOQ offered to have students talk about the campaign
But it was the television stations that amazed
me. I screwed up my nerve to ask Dave Davis, the general manager of WPVI,
if his station would consider airing a candidates debate in which students
would ask the questions. Without hesitation, he said yes. It would turn
out to be one of only four televised forums in which the candidates got
to make their cases directly to the publicand it would be focused
completely on young people.
When I called over to WCAU, the NBC affiliate,
I was told the stations news director wanted to meet with me.
"This is what I want to do," Steve
Schwaid announced in a rapid-fire conversation. "I want to work with
the class from CAPA [High School for the Creative and Performing Arts].
Thats our adopted school. I want to put kids on the air, have them
do civic journalism about the mayors race. Well put them in
a segment of our Saturday morning newscastitll lead into our
teen block. Lets pick a couple of students and put them live on
air each weektheyll interview the candidates, and report on
The producer of the Saturday morning newscast,
Lydia Reeves, asked, "Steve, when exactly do you want to start this?"
"Can we do one a week from Saturday for
the beginning of sweeps?"
I thought I heard him wrong. We had not yet
held our teacher-training session; I had not even met the CAPA teacher;
and the station wanted student reporters on the air by the following Saturday?
It was a crazy notionbut not one I was willing to refuse. No television
station in the country had ever done something like this.
In the weeks that followed, we had to scramble
to make it happenespecially when the station, under the gun to raise
the newscasts ratings, announced that it would not be able to spare
any resources to help the kids do their stories. If there was going to
be civic journalism, it was going to be up to the feisty CAPA
teacher, Sue Rosenthal, who guided the classs research on issues
and candidates, and the Annenberg Schools audio-visual coordinator,
Ellen Reynolds, who helped the students shoot pieces with the schools
But happen it did. The five CAPA kids selected
to go on air interviewed each mayoral candidate live, asking about their
plans to improve schools, deploy police and deal with truancy. By weeks
nine and 10, they were out at the Art Museum, doing live remote pieces
on voter-registration drives, and going to the warehouse where voting
machines were stored, to demonstrate how to cast a vote. Even when the
students stumbled or pranced, they looked great on television and their
pieces were both delightful and substantive.
Still, CAPA was a magnet school, drawing some
of the most talented students in the city. It was not until the WPVI Candidates
Forum, taped on March 27, that I realized just how much teachers at the
neighborhood high schools had managed to accomplish. Each class sent us
questions for the candidates. Not only were they good, they were dramatically
different from those journalists tend to ask at such debates. "What
do you think distinguishes you from Mayor Rendell?" one asked, while
another wanted to know: "How can recreation centers be used to improve
But it was after the formal question-and-answer
session was taped that the real spectacle began. Candidates Happy Fernandez
and Dwight Evans stayed to answer more questions and found the students
bubbling over with issues they wanted to discuss, and opinions they wanted
to offer. I watched as the producer, Linda Munich, looked on, obviously
impressed. "Theyre really interested, arent they?"
she said. "And they know more than anybody gives them credit for."
She was so struck with this impromptu interchange that she invited six
students to come back to the studio a few days later to tape an additional
half hour for the program.
I began to see the process repeated. Neighborhood-newspaper
reporters would agree to do a story on the project and come back blown
away by the students. "They interviewed me," said a 25-year-old
reporter for the Chestnut Hill Local, who visited Roxborough High.
"They knew so much about the campaignmore than a lot of my
friends do," he said. A WPVI producer who went to Germantown High
to shoot a story was so impressed by how well the students navigated the
candidates Web sites that he and his cameraman wound up spending
an hour and a half at the school. Usually, the TV cameras only came to
interview students when one of their fellow teens had been shot or stabbed.
The journalists were beginning to discover that
young peopleeven from the poorest neighborhoods and the most troubled
public schoolscared deeply about the problems facing their neighborhoods
and the city. And, with the help of their teachers, they were jumping
at the chance to make their voices heard.
April, I had figured out a way for other
people to witness candidates coming into classrooms and answering students
questions. I got the Pennsylvania Cable Network to agree to tape each
candidate visiting one of my classes and then talked all six candidates
into coming to be taped. The programs were aired the nights of the appearances
and repeated regularly afterwards.
who watched saw a very different image of inner-city youths and political
candidates from the ones they were used to on the evening news. The teens
were articulate and informed, and the candidates passionate about the
city. And it was not just the students doing the learning. In a campaign
in which public education was taking center stage, the candidates were
seeing firsthand what was going on inside city schools. And learning to
speak to a whole new constituency.
thought back to the survey I had read last fall, where young people said
politicians werent listening to their concerns. In the 1999 Philadelphia
primary campaign, candidates were listening to young peoples voices.
the primary elections neared, the candidates
frantically tried to win votes and raise more moneybut they kept
saying yes to our invitations. It helped that by now the school district
had modified its media policy, and we were able to get media coverage
for every event. At Masterman, the class held a scripted mock debate in
which students portrayed each candidate, and three of the actual candidates
sat through every word. Democratic candidate John White Jr. congratulated
his stand-in: "Would that all of us could have been that succinct
on the campaign trail." John Street stopped at Ben Franklin High
and told students, "Look at me and know that you can be anythinganythingyou
want if you work hard enough at it." At Roxborough High, Dwight Evans
explained why fighting gun violence was his number-one priority, then
asked how many students had guns in their homes. More than half raised
On the day of the mayoral primary, many of the
classes held mock elections, and cheered their 18-year-old classmates
who could vote in the actual one. In the end, John Street, president of
Philadelphia City Council, won the Democratic primary over his four opponents,
and began preparing to face Republican Sam Katz, who had run unopposed,
in the fall general election.
With the primary over, the students went into
high gear to produce portfolios of their work. In early June, representatives
of each class presented their work in a 17th floor conference
room at the Pew Charitable Trusts offices, as part of a competition
for class prizes. Their work was astounding: Web sites created by students
describing where each candidate stood on the issues; printed voters
guides detailing candidates responses to questions; public- service
announcements urging young people to vote; youth surveys, complete with
margin of error noted. The judges were most touched, though, by the learning-disabled
students at South Philadelphia High, who had colored tee-shirts as a way
of getting across the message to vote.
At a June 10 awards ceremony at College Hall
on Penns campus, we presented awards to the schools. Dean Jamieson
had planned to give out three cash awards, but, after the student presentations,
we decided to recognize every class that handed in a portfolio in some
way. The students and their teachers positively beamed as they came up
to the podium to accept their awards.
After the ceremony, I stopped to chat with Germantown
High teacher Bob Lemoine, whose class had taken fourth place. "You
know, Phyllis, when I started with this project, I thought it would never
work," he told me. "None of it, not the part about the media
partners, not the candidates coming to classes. My students said,
No candidate is ever going to talk to us. Were not important
enough. But then Dwight Evans came, and Happy Fernandez. And then
Channel 6 came and spent an hour and a half with us. Well, now all I can
say is, weve turned into believers."
And so had I.
Dr. Phyllis Kaniss CW72 is a
project director at the Annenberg School for Communication and
the author of The Media and the Mayors Race and Making