Well done to civics teacher, students

Published 9:20 pm Wednesday, April 13, 2011

One of the shameful facts of our representative democracy is that participation is usually so low. Even in a historic and emotionally charged election like that of 2008, when America elected its first black president in the midst of two unpopular wars and a faltering economy, fewer than two-thirds of Suffolk’s voters turned out to cast their votes. And that figure doesn’t even account for the number of adults who are eligible to vote but choose not to register and instead remain aloof from the electoral process.

Like so many other things, interest in the political process is hardly something that comes naturally. Instead, it is usually cultivated over a period of years, and the later the process starts, the later a person finally understands the societal responsibility that is met and the self interest that is served by keeping abreast of issues to the point that he or she can make an informed decision come election time.

Too many of us were raised to believe that such things as taxes and laws were the realm of adults. Hence, while we were in our youth, we were not encouraged to become engaged in the process or even to learn much about it beyond a basic government class or two. As a consequence, voter participation among young adults has always been lower than that of older adults.

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Another consequence is that young adults — much less teenagers — are less likely to be involved in trying to influence the government actions that will affect them. One rarely sees teenagers at a City Council meeting, for example.

But a recent council meeting proved an exception to the rule, as four students from John Yeates Middle School were in the chambers to see firsthand the process by which Suffolk’s budget is set. In fact, during the public hearing on the budget, one of the youth pleaded with council members to provide more space for animals at Suffolk Animal Control and to avoid cutting funds for special programs at school.

The young people were visiting in order to complete a homework assignment suggested by their seventh-grade civics and economics teacher, Christina Klein. It’s just part of what Klein and fellow teacher Whitney Stark are doing at John Yeates to get their charges interested in learning about their civic duties. There also have been mock General Assembly sessions and other hands-on activities.

Kudos to the teachers for developing the activities and for suggesting that their students attend a meeting of Suffolk’s City Council. The only way that most of us ever get engaged in civic matters is by finally realizing that they affect us personally, and the teachers should be commended for making an effort to teach that lesson so early.

But the young people who took Ms. Klein up on her suggestion should especially be commended. They are the first to follow through on the idea since she started offering it several years ago. And they came back energized and ready to share their experience with their peers.

Now that’s great teaching and a great result.