Classrooms resonate with presidential civics lesson; Students take note of voters’ power

By Mike Jackson and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

Page 29A

George W. Bush and Al Gore fared no differently at Peabody Elementary School than in the nation at large.

The presidential candidates were so close in Tuesday’s mock election at the West Oak Cliff school that students demanded three recounts.

“It surprised me this morning,” Peabody principal Manuel Ontiveros said. “It was almost an exact simulation. Our kids reflect what the country is thinking about.”

Teachers across the Dallas-Fort Worth area used this year’s presidential election as a lesson in American politics. On Wednesday, many had a historic close finish and a cliffhanger recount in Florida to extend the classroom exercise.

“I’m just going nuts,” said Dianne Gibson, who teaches at L.D. Bell High School in Hurst. “Is this not the best thing in the world for a government teacher?”

The mock election at Peabody was organized by students in Renee Hardy’s talented and gifted classes. Votes were cast by 502 students in Ms. Hardy’s classroom, where registration cards and polling booths were set up.

The school voting age was set at about 7: Pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students were deemed too young to participate. Among the rest of the school’s students: “We had 100-percent participation,” Ms. Hardy said.

Some of Ms. Hardy’s students served as board members who carefully monitored the tabulation. Ana Mendez, 11, was among them. She said one of her classmates appeared to count some of Mr. Bush’s votes twice.

“We were done counting and he got more,” Ana said.”And I don’t know where he got them from. We had to count over.”

The first count indeed appeared to be in error. After three recounts – just to be sure – Mr. Bush was deemed barely victorious, 257 votes to 245.

The similarly close national result had to have government teachers everywhere smiling Wednesday.

Mrs. Gibson said the momentous twists and turns had her students’ attention.

“They’re asking questions, talking about the news they’ve heard,” she said. “They know the significance of Florida. They know Jeb Bush is the governor there, and one asked, ‘Doesn’t his brother have any strings he can pull?'”

For some students, the tight race has driven home the point government teachers have been harping on all semester: Voting matters.

“I think it’s got a lot of people to really see how important an election is,” said Tim Gingrich, a senior in Mrs. Gibson’s class. “You can’t say anymore, ‘My vote doesn’t count.’ I think it really will make a lot of people feel their vote is important and needed.”

“It’s incredibly exciting,” said Xander Snyder, another senior in the class. “One state could swing the whole thing. And one vote in that state could do it.”

In the Plano Senior High School classroom of Dodie Kasper, students were glued to CNN all day. “They’ve been talking about it since the minute they walked in,” Ms. Kasper said.

Her classes learned about the Electoral College last week, but this year’s race drove home the potential vagaries of the system. “Several kids said, ‘I fell asleep in front of the TV and someone was winning. Then I woke up and someone else was winning.’ You couldn’t have a better time to be a government teacher.”

She said the “incredible” increase in student interest for this election could mean that today’s high school students might be more willing to vote once they reach age 18.

Turnout among young people has been dropping ever since 18- to 21-year-olds got the vote in 1971. Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, predicted last month that this year’s election would have the lowest voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds ever recorded. Official youth turnout numbers won’t be known for weeks, but Mr. Gans said Wednesday that he stands by his prediction.

According to exit poll data, those age 18 to 29 made up 17 percent of those voting in Tuesday’s election. That age group makes up 22 percent of the total voting-age population, indicating that young voters again lagged behind their older peers in turnout.

Mr. Gans said he doesn’t believe that even a close race like this year’s would measurably improve youth turnout for future races. “There was no real sense of idealism in this election,” he said.

But if the energy in government classes Wednesday was any indication, a few new political junkies could be in the making.

“I’m telling them: This is their history,” Mrs. Gibson said. “It’s no longer mine or their grandparents. This is their history, and I think maybe that makes it real for them. They realize that government is not just something you have to study to get a credit for graduation.”