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This election in class by itself

| Friday, Oct. 31, 2008

The Obama-McCain election duel still is playing out across the country, but in Alle-Kiski Valley schools it's all over.

School districts throughout the Valley held mock elections this week, giving students their first taste of political debate and casting a vote.

Some local districts tied their balloting to statewide school mock elections, which in turn, is a tied to a national effort.

The statewide mock student balloting, run by the Pennsylvania Departments of State and Education, is to educate school-age youth about the voting process, said Molly O'Leary, chief of the state Division of Voter Registration. Older students were casting ballots for president, as well as state auditor general, attorney general and treasurer and even referendums.

"Having them vote on all these offices and the referendum questions is a great experience so that when they do turn 18 and are eligible to vote they are more prepared," O'Leary said.

About 1,500 schools and some 350,000 students were registered to participate -- more than double the number in 2004, O'Leary said. The mock election was started in 1988 and is held every two years.

Students voted on referendums that varied by grade level.

In kindergarten through third grade, children voted for their favorite food and color; students in fourth through eighth grade voted on issues such as year-round schooling, soda pop in school and mandatory school uniforms.

At the high school level, students voted on more serious referendums relating to the energy crisis, health care, education and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Plum Senior High School held its mock election for president on Tuesday and Wednesday, but won't be sending its results to the state, said Principal Pamela Kinzler. Its results weren't released Thursday.

"I think it was great for the student body to do because it just sparks interest in the political process," said Joe Tuite, 16, a Plum High School junior. "It will spark future political discussions. Even though I can't vote in this election, we need to start talking about issues.

"Anytime where you can spark interest in politics, it's important."

"This is part of our democracy and it's a gift. They have to realize not all the countries in the world are able to have elections like we are," said Donna Lobaugh, a student government sponsor at Plum's Regency Park Elementary.

Tuite and two of his sophomore schoolmates, Katherine Rosko, 15, and Kevin Schaefer, 15, voted for McCain.

"I was actually in-between," Rosko said. "Up until a week ago, I was going to vote for Obama. Then I was listening to the radio a lot and listening to a lot of discussions and I decided to go with John McCain because I think Obama is too much of a socialist. Calling him a socialist might seem extreme, but too many of his plans depend on government.

"I'm going to be interested in seeing what the high school thinks compared to what the country thinks, because teenagers look at things differently than adults do," she added. "It was really exciting to actually have a voice."

Schaefer actually wrote the program to handle the 1,300 votes cast on the school's computer system, With it, students are also collecting demographic information that will be studied, including gender and which elementary school they attended.

"I voted with (McCain) because I pretty much agree with him on just about every issue," Schaefer said. "I disagree with Barack Obama, particularly on tax policies. But, I generally agree with Republican ideals."

He said the political discourse regarding the election was a little better than what has been happening out in the real world.

"It wasn't quite as bad as on the campaign trail, but it was pretty heated because we are about evenly split between McCain and Obama," Schaefer said of the student body. "It's a good thing because otherwise the kids wouldn't be involved at all. Whatever gets them involved is great.

"This is the first time that I have truly seen kids interested in politics and the future of the country."

There is a lot of interest in the election among students at Highlands' Fawn Elementary School, said fifth-grade teacher Melissa McCurdy. The school's 45 fifth-graders cast votes Thursday.

"It's funny to hear them talk, "McCurdy said. "Sometimes you know it's coming from someone else; it's coming from what they've heard."

"My fifth-graders are starting to form their own opinions," she said. "It's interesting to hear their take on it and why they want to vote for a particular person."

At Burrell High School, the Obama-Biden ticket won with 271 votes in a mock election held last week, while McCain-Palin trailed with 178. The independent ticket of Ralph Nader and Matt Gonzalez received 44 votes, while the Libertarian ticket of Bob Barr and Wayne Root received 12.

There is so much interest among students in this year's election, that five students have volunteered to work as poll workers on Election Day, said social studies teacher Jeffrey Leri.

"We've had a lot of students who said they wish they were 18 who would like to vote in this election," Leri said. "One poor girl turns 18 the day after. She was kind of disappointed. She kept asking if there was some way to get around it. I said I don't think so."

Participating in the mock election was a natural extension of the government class, Leri said.

"It was an opportunity to bring the importance of this election and the importance of voting, itself, to all the students," he said. "It helped to energize them and hopefully make them voters in the future."

Sixth-graders at Kiski Area's Bell-Avon Elementary School also voted Thursday. They've been studying the parties and the candidates, and made campaign signs that adorn the school's walls.

"They're interested and they're very excited to vote," said reading teacher Katey O'Neal. "It's a significant election for our country. No matter who gets elected, it's going to make history. The students know that."

Franklin Regional High School reversed course and is not participating in the state mock election, but is holding its own on Election Day, said government and economics teacher Melissa Miller.

"I've never seen a class so involved and so interested," she said. "Pennsylvania has really taken center stage. It's hitting close to home.

"When you teach government to seniors, it can seem very dry, abstract and completely irrelevant to them. I want it to be something that's part of their life that's relevant to them. This is a democracy, and the idea behind that is everyone has an equal right to participate."

At Kiski Area's Mamont Elementary, McCain won with 157 votes to Obama's 63 in mock balloting Monday, said sixth-grade teacher Christie Palmero.

"They liked having their opinions heard," she said. "They liked feeling they could vote. They wanted to know if it counted and I said no. It was a chance for them to practice. They really enjoyed the discussions.

"Voting is very important. When they get the opportunity, they'll be eager to do it."

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Tom Yerace can be reached at tyerace@tribweb.com.

Additional Information:

Local results not available

While the statewide mock student balloting, run by the Pennsylvania Departments of State and Education, promises to give the results of voting at every participating school, the program's Web site was not operating properly Thursday night. Therefore, results were not available as planned.

Check today to seek if the school-by-school results are available at: www.dos.state.pa.us/mockelection .

The national mock election Web site also reported technical issues for some student voters, but reported that Pennsylvania students voted to elect Democrats Barak Obama as president and Joe Biden as vice president, with more than 57 percent of the vote. The Republican team of John McCain and Sarah Palin received 37.5 percent of student votes, and candidates for two minor parties got about 3 percent of the vote combined.

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