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Almost ready to rock (the vote)

Teens can be civic-minded before they can head to the polls

Teens can be civic-minded before they can head to the polls

February 13, 2008|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

Just because teens are too young to Rock the Vote doesn't mean they're too young to make their presence felt in politics, educators and youth advocates say.

"Voting is just a small part of being civicly involved," says Clyde Harrell, director of high school education for Washington Public Schools. "If you really want to go out there and make a change, you've got to be active in the community."

If young people are involved before they are legally able to head to the ballot box, they are more likely to grow up to be civic-minded adults, Harrell says. At stake is the kind of America we all will live in later - all the more reason to encourage teens to make their voices heard today, youth advocates say.

Perhaps somewhere there's a parent who's thinking, "Well, my teen already does a good-enough job at making his voice heard ... ," but this kind of civic engagement is not so much about standing up for one's right to text message, make BFFs or have a Myspace page.

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Politics might provide teens with yet another mode for self-expression.

"This is when young people are really trying to find themselves, so they may hear something in a politician's speech that they connect with," says Edward Wilcox, director of communications for GenerationEngage, a nonpartisan group that aspires to mobilize young voters. "This is when they determine whether they are a Democrat or Republican for life."

One way to bolster teenage civic duty: Talk politics at home.

"Talk about how you might be affected by Governor O'Malley's budget (and) higher taxes, and, locally, how there's been a lot of talk about home-rule charter," said Gene Ebersole, adviser for student government and the secondary social studies curriculum instruction specialist for Washington County Public Schools.

Another idea: When election time comes, take your teens to the precinct with you, Wilcox said. "What better way than to lead by example?" he asked.

Recent studies provide a mixed picture of young people's current state of civic-mindedness.

In January, The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, a research group based at University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, reported that an increased number of youth voters voted in primaries this month in Iowa and New Hampshire.

But the same organization issued another report, a 2006 survey of voters and non-voters, that found nearly one out of every five youths were not involved in any civic activity. The study surveyed 1,700 people ages 15 to 25.

Groups like GenerationEngage have taken the stance that the lack of civic engagement, particularly among the "just younger than voter" set, is not for lack of interest, but lack of attention from candidates.

"I think that's a powerful demographic that politicians overlook," Wilcox said. "Ultimately, it's one of the greatest oversights of the political process."

Locally, there many things public school students can do outside of social studies class. Every year, members of the Washington County Public Schools' student government body go to Annapolis, to lobby for policies they feel are most important to their peers, Ebersole said.

Healthier school lunches and student privacy rights were two key issues for which Washington County students lobbied last year. The students are planning to make the trip again this year on Feb. 20, Ebersole said.

High school seniors also have a chance to work as pages for the General Assembly, Ebersole said.

"Students don't always see that government affects them," he said. "But sometimes parents are like the students - they're not as knowledgeable as they should be."

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