Community Schools in New York City Sponsor Voter Registrations and Mock Elections

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The recent presidential election demonstrated that grassroots efforts to register voters and create political awareness work. New voters, as well as young voters, Latinos and African Americans overwhelmingly voted for change. The Children’s Aid Society believes that these non-partisan efforts should start at the school level, to instill in students, as early as possible, the value of voting as a key civic responsibility as well as a powerful tool for change and to encourage parents and the broader community to participate in the democratic process.

In previous presidential elections, all of Children’s Aid’s community schools supported the electoral process by holding voter registration drives aimed at parents and other neighborhood residents. In 2008, efforts to engage students in the election took on another dimension, thanks to staff leadership at the Salomé Ureña de Henríquez Middle Academies (S.U.M.A.) Campus in Washington Heights, where we held a very successful mock election that involved over 600 elementary, middle and high school students.

Work on the mock election started in September at the three S.U.M.A. middle schools and at P.S. 152 (an elementary-level community school) via staff training that focused on how to discuss voting and elections in a non-partisan way with students of different ages. During October 2008, the theme of the after-school programs at the S.U.M.A. campus (as well as at P.S. 152 and at Children’s Aid’s East Harlem Center, which provided the teens) was the upcoming presidential election. Students learned about the platforms of the major political parties and the issues that matter most to the general public. They also participated in games that incorporated decision-making and in workshops that addressed three big issues: why it is important to vote, the history of the struggle of women and African Americans to gain voting rights, and the actual process of voting. Children from the three S.U.M.A. schools, P.S. 152 and East Harlem Center participated in the November 4th mock election.

“The historical context of the struggle that won African Americans and women the right to vote was key to our program,” observed Migdalia Cortes Torres, Children’s Aid Society’s Community School Director at the Salomé Ureña de Henríques Campus. “We wanted students to really understand why voting shouldn’t be taken for granted. They needed to know that a few generations ago, only white males could vote, whereas this year a woman was running for Vice President and an African American man for President.”

The students researched the candidates’ platforms on foreign policy, the war, energy, the economy, health care and the environment and also had an opportunity to identify their own issues of importance: school lunches, youth employment, school safety and school climate. Students debated the issues, held press conferences, hired campaign managers and public relations staff, created commercials, slogans and posters, and conducted candidate campaigns.

“They really got into their roles and were very convincing,” notes Ms. Torres. “The most exciting thing was the energy, not only on the day of the mock election on Election Day, but during the whole month of October. Wherever you went, the theme was the election. Our Teen Program, Adult Education Program and our parents got involved through the registration drive. Many of our staff had not registered to vote and they got excited and ended up voting themselves; they are 18 to 24 years old and teaching the kids made them realize that this was important for them as well.”

The adult voter registration drive started in all the schools in August. According to Gail Grandison, a community schools staffer who managed the drive for The Children’s Aid Society, one of the challenges was to get people to understand the importance of registering to vote in advance of the election in addition to voting in the actual election.

“Another challenge was dealing with the apathy and negativity of potential voters; many people don’t vote because they think their votes don’t count.

“We achieved great results. We distributed 6,000 voter registration cards, potentially registering thousands of new voters. We should definitely keep the momentum in our schools generated by this historic election. Immigrants and other minorities must understand that local elections affect them directly; in New York City, for instance, we have an important mayoral election next year. We are going to make sure that our parents and other neighborhood residents understand that all elections count.”