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Making Their Voices Heard, continued


The 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. What’s 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 city’s 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 on-air.
   
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 public–and it would be focused completely on young people.
   
When I called over to WCAU, the NBC affiliate, I was told the station’s 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]. That’s our adopted school. I want to put kids on the air, have them do civic journalism about the mayor’s race. We’ll put them in a segment of our Saturday morning newscast–it’ll lead into our teen block. Let’s pick a couple of students and put them live on air each week–they’ll interview the candidates, and report on the campaign."
   
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 notion–but 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 happen–especially when the station, under the gun to raise the newscast’s 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 class’s research on issues and candidates, and the Annenberg School’s audio-visual coordinator, Ellen Reynolds, who helped the students shoot pieces with the school’s video equipment.
   
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 neighborhoods?"
   
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. "They’re really interested, aren’t 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 campaign–more 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 people–even from the poorest neighborhoods and the most troubled public schools–cared 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.

By 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.
   
Those 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.
   
I thought back to the survey I had read last fall, where young people said politicians weren’t listening to their concerns. In the 1999 Philadelphia primary campaign, candidates were listening to young people’s voices.

As the primary elections neared, the candidates frantically tried to win votes and raise more money–but 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 anything–anything–you 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 their hands.
   
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 Trust’s 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 Penn’s 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. We’re 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, we’ve turned into believers."
   
And so had I.


Dr. Phyllis Kaniss CW’72 is a project director at the Annenberg School for Communication and the author of The Media and the Mayor’s Race and Making Local News.

 

 


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