Making Their Voices Heard, continued

What 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 Philadelphia’s 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 issues.
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 ESPN’s 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 1972–and the figure was down to 15 percent in the 1998 congressional elections. According to the survey, young people weren’t voting because they didn’t feel they knew enough about the issues. They weren’t learning about civics in school, or discussing politics with their parents, or keeping up with the news. What’s more, they didn’t feel that candidates were listening to their concerns. The report warned that we might be losing democracy’s next generation.
And that’s 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-mail–things 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 Philadelphia’s 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. "Let’s 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.

Even before Sam Katz’s 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 teachers–one from almost every high school in the city–whom we had managed to recruit within one short month. School Superintendent David Hornbeck L’71 opened the day by offering his support to the project, and then Philadelphia’s current mayor, Ed Rendell C’65, spoke for 30 minutes about the need to focus students on the issues of the campaign, and how a candidate’s 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 Hornbeck’s contract for an additional year without consulting teachers?" So much for pure pedagogical interest in a new educational project, I thought.
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. They’ll 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, you’ll get a media partner–a television or radio station or a newspaper–to help your students make their voices heard. In fact, we’ve 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, "There’s going to be a problem. Most of us don’t have phone lines in our classrooms. And it’s 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 them–and, 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 he’d like me to see the obstacles he faced. He said that everyone in his school’s 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 interview?"
"My mom."
"Good. What issues did she say concerned her?"
"Okay, what about crime?"
"I dunno. Crime. That’s all she said."
"Well, is there anything you yourself think about crime?"
"It’s bad."
When the class was over, the teacher looked almost pleased. "You see what I mean?" he said.
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 left–with 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.

One 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 the race.
    A 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 Philadelphia’s mayoral race." Wow, I thought. Somebody’s 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. "I’m really sorry, but I don’t 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 High–to an empty classroom, the result of yet another of those assemblies I came to hate. But he didn’t 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. "He’s in his twenties, but let me tell you, he’s 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 school system."
Evans, perched on a stool at the front of the class, listened carefully. "I’m 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? It’s great, by the way."
"Chartreuse," she answered with a shy laugh.
"Chartreuse. Well, she got to choose what color blouse she was wearing this morning, and that’s all I’m saying to you–I 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 he’d 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 questions–and 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 city’s problems made it into media coverage of the campaign.
I floated back to campus and the excitement lingered–until 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 Center."


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Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 8/31/99