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Voters of the future

Nicole Inglis
Max Donovan begins his civic education with two Masai warriors in Kenya.
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While other 12-year-olds were anxiously awaiting the start of the school year, Kaitlyn Donovan waited in security lines for hours on end to get into Invesco Field to witness Barack Obama’s historic acceptance speech. Her dad said it wasn’t an easy day for a 12-year-old, but that the experience was an important one in his daughter’s education.

“Being part of such a large political event, seeing the energy around and the sheer number of people involved, she really enjoyed it.” Pat Donovan said. “She was really engaged the whole time. I think she got a lot out of it.”

Pat Donovan, former school board member and Avon resident, found inspiration for his children’s education overseas. He and his wife, Marcy, member of Boulder-based Mothers Acting Up, took their kids out of school for a year to travel the world.

“We were in Kenya during the election turmoil there, and that really started to get them involved with it,” Donovan said. “We just think it’s really important for our kids to be involved in the democratic process and know what’s going on.”

Donovan said children in elementary school are old enough to grasp the issues and be influenced by mass media.

“This election, you’re seeing a lot of back and forth between the candidates at the national and local level,” Donovan said. “I think it’s important to describe to your kids, ‘OK, why are people taking shots at each other on television?’ They’re forming opinions right now, and when Kaitlyn turns 18, we want her to be well informed.”

Donovan said because they don’t have a television at their house, their education process is focused on the issues and not tainted by the barrage of negative ad campaigns. But without civic education at a pre-voting age, many kids might be more aware of the highly publicized side of the elections that they see on television instead of getting at the heart of the issues.

“There’s so much dissent and division, and people need to talk about issues and try to convey to our kids, you can have an intelligent conversation about politics without it getting too personal,” Donovan said.

“If we want kids to both learn about the electoral process, and better yet, to become intrigued and excited by it, introducing them to voting at a young age can be a highly positive experience,” said Mike Beernsten, a teacher at the Vail Mountain School.

But education on civic responsibility does not end at home. This election season, both private and public schools are making an effort to create awareness of the democratic process. In Grand Junction, Kids Voting Mesa County is the engine behind the mass organization of a structured election-year civic education curriculum.

Kids Voting Mesa County is an affiliate of a national grassroots organization, Kids Voting USA. The program was pioneered during the 1988 election in suburban Phoenix after three local businessmen got more than they bargained for on a fishing trip in Costa Rica.

The three men were surprised to discover that voter turnout in Costa Rica was upwards of 80 percent. They discovered that children customarily accompany their parents to the polls, and voting is considered a family affair. They returned to Phoenix and began the first chapter of what would become Kids Voting USA.

Linda Reeves, a retired middle school history teacher and vice president of Kids Voting Mesa County, said that 20,000 students in grades K-12 will make their voices heard on ballots that incorporate real issues from the national level down to county initiatives. The ballots differ from grade to grade, incorporating more complex issues for the older kids but still giving younger kids a chance to understand the scope of this November’s election.

For example, the kindergarten through second-grade ballot includes the options for president and vice president – all 16 parties and their candidates – and one ballot initiative: Should Grand Junction sales tax be increased to pay for new police and fire buildings? The ballots for older grades include U.S. Senate, state Senate, state House, county commissioner and more complex initiatives. The idea is to give younger kids examples of the kinds of election issues that affect their community, and teach them how to take responsibility through the democratic process.

“I just love being involved with Kids Voting,” Reeves said. “It’s a fabulous program but takes community backing and a lot of donations to run.”

Kids Voting costs about $50,000 to run each year, and Reeves said they are lucky the community supports civic education efforts.

Kids Voting hasn’t reached Eagle County yet, but educators in the Vail Valley are taking measures to make sure their students are aware of the democratic process and civic responsibilities. Beernsten has organized a mock election for Nov. 4, during which all students will report to a common area to vote for the presidential candidate.

“This choice was made so that students as young as five are able to understand the process,” Beersten said. “Students of all ages are undeniably influenced by their parents and the advertisements that they see, but VMS has also made a concerted effort to introduce all of the students to the major issues confronting the nation and the candidates’ positions on them.”

Beernsten said the mock election is just one part of the process concerning civic education. Each division of the school (lower, middle and upper) is required to break up into groups and present different aspects of the election and issues to their peers in a class called “town meeting.” He said that this type of interaction is important, because it’s students teaching other students, so they will listen and be able to understand each other. Also, eighth-graders at VMS are required to take a civics course, which delves into the election process in great detail.

Engaging pre-voting age youth in the democratic process can clearly affect outcomes of future elections, once this generation is old enough to vote. However, Beersten said that getting kids involved can have an effect on this election as well.

“At a time in which record numbers of young people are participating in the primaries, and ideally in the general election, having young students going home to ask their parents thoughtful questions about the candidates and the issues facing the nation can only lead to increased investment by families in the current election,” he said.


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