At 15, Carly Cordle admits she hasn't thought a lot about the importance of voting. But by the end of the Oakcrest High School Election Convention on Wednesday, the sophomore had lined up to cast her vote at one of the voting booths provided by the Atlantic County Board of Elections for a mock election in the Mays Landing high school gym.
"It really opened my eyes to how important voting is," she said. She admitted the ballot, with all its buttons and choices, was a bit confusing at first, but it was also cool to think she could have a voice in government.
Elections offer an annual opportunity for teachers to show civics lessons in action. Some embrace the opportunity. But school interest often seems to reflect voter interest. Last year's presidential election generated a lot of discussion and mock elections in schools. This year's election, even with a governor's race, is more low key.
Arlene Gardner, director of the New Jersey Center for Civic Education, said an election provides the opportunity for concrete rather than theoretical learning.
"It just makes it much more interesting," she said, "especially with the constitutional questions this year. Many high school students are working, so the minimum wage issue is one they really might relate to."
Gardner said she is worried that civics is not being taught as much as it should be in schools.
"Kids are interested in the community service aspect, but not politics," she said. "(Politics) has gotten messy and dirty, and teachers don't want to appear biased for or against a candidate or an issue."
Some local schools have embraced the campaign, though finding time for special projects can be a challenge.
At the Eugene Tighe School in Margate, Kathy Styles-Landgraf's eighth-graders had to choose a candidate and create presentations that explained the person's view on three issues. Seventh-graders had to research candidates and create a poster outlining their qualifications and isssues.
U.S. I History teachers at Egg Harbor Township High School hosted a mock election Friday. Teachers there developed lessons that integrated election issues into graphic arts, computer programming, economics, law and social studies. Gov. Chris Christie won by 88 votes out of the 1,152 votes cast.
The Richmond Avenue School in Atlantic City will hold a mock election today, focusing on the mayoral and gubenatorial races.
Vineland social studies supervisor Ross Stanger said time is a big concern, but several teachers did develop election-related civics projects. Heather Musto's eighth-graders created PowerPoint commercials for candidates and will have a mock election today. Beverly Messore has her high schools students discussing natural rights and the role of government. High School history teacher Lou Russo is holdng a classroom gubernatorial debate and mock election. Richard Ebinger's middle school students will research issues and do an online vote.
Holy Spirit High School teacher Carol Fabietti focused on civics as the first lessons in her new Introduction to Law class at the Absecon school. A retired lawyer, municipal court judge and Holy Spirit alumna, Fabietti said she began by explaining how government works.
"I think most teachers don't really have the time to break it all down and talk about it," she said of explaining how a bill gets passed and how the powers of government are divided. The government shutdown gave her the ideal situation to use as an example, and her class also discussed the minimum wage issue in New Jersey.
"All of a sudden, this wasn't just about who wins an election, it was about who's writing the laws that affect you," Fabietti said.
Several local candidates attended the Oakcrest convention, and a few mentioned issues they thought students would be interested in. Vincent Mazzeo, a Democrat running for state Assembly, said he supports the minimum wage increase. His Republican opponent, Chris Brown, said he would address college affordability.
Students were able to register to vote at Oakcrest, and Board of Elections Superintendent Maureen Bugdon increased participation when she told them they could register at age 17 and be ready for next year if they turn 18 by the 2014 election.
Teachers Vincent Sera and Stephanie Darrell organized the annual Oakcrest event and said it does get students interested in voting. Sera said having actual voting booths at the school lets students test-drive the process in a low-stress atmosphere.
"They are apprehensive," he said.
Student Michael Ney, 18, said the process of voting was easy, it's deciding whom to vote for that's hard.
"You have to do some research," he said, adding he was impressed with all of the candidates who attended the convention.
The candidates talked a bit about their platforms, but also just encouraged the students to vote.
Hamilton Township Mayor Amy Gatto asked all of the 18-year-olds who had registered to vote this year to stand up, and about 15 complied.
"The 15 of you standing could change the election," she said, noting that several years ago a local incumbent lost by just six votes.
The only woman on the candidate panel, Gatto enthusiastically encouraged the girls to get involved in politics, and it appears she made an impression. The results of the event's mock election found Democratic challenger Barbara Buono losing by only one vote to Gov. Chris Christie, 25 to 24, far better than she is faring in statewide polls.
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