'Kids Voting' project will also nudge parents to polls

April 10, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

Harford County teachers have begun preliminary steps in preparing for this fall's new curriculum that will target voter apathy.

In September, the county's 35,000 students will be participating in Maryland's first endeavor to encourage parental voting and instill lifelong voting habits in school-age children as part of a national program, Kids Voting.

Maryland is the 12th state to implement the program, which began in Arizona in 1988 and has now expanded to 20 states.

Representatives from each county school met recently at Aberdeen Middle School to begin planning for the studies, which will culminate in students' voting in the Nov. 8 gubernatorial election with their parents.

"You are the front lines in this state," said Nancy Jo Steetle, executive director of Kids Voting Maryland, who spoke to the teachers.

The educators, who were given a Kids Voting activities book and a locally produced handbook, worked with national education coordinator Marlene Tolman, exploring ideas and ways to incorporate the Kids Voting program in their schools.

Ms. Tolman reminded the teachers that "everyone in Kids Voting is still a pioneer" as she sketched several suggestions for the classroom, from voting games for elementary students to candidate forums for teens to celebrity voter registrations for everyone.

The school curriculum will teach students in kindergarten through 12th grade about election basics, candidates and campaign issues. The students will even register to vote. They will then vote at any one of Harford's 54 polling sites with their parents but will cast their ballots separately. The votes won't count officially, but they will be tabulated and the results distributed.

Each school, in addition to incorporating the subject matter throughout the curriculum -- from math to language arts to music -- will be able to add its own thumbprint.

"I just love the idea," said first-grade teacher Karen Thomas of Abingdon Elementary.

"It's a nice program, since it dovetails with the high school program [on voting]," agreed Fallston High social studies teacher Susan Varipatis.

The goal is to increase adult voter turnout. Harford is already on the upswing, statistically. It went from a 33 percent turnout in the 1984 presidential election to 85 percent in 1992, said Rita Dather, chief of the Harford County Board of Elections supervisors.

With Kids Voting, that number could jump even higher.

Nationwide, in areas with a Kids Voting program, the turnout has increased from 3 percent to 7 percent, said Deborah J. Heiberger, education coordinator for the local Kids Voting organization and executive director of curriculum and instruction Harford schools.

By the end of the decade, it is expected that all 24 school jurisdictions in Maryland will be participating in the program, which involves the business community as well as parents, Ms. Steetle said.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. is spearheading the corporate charge, which has 14 companies and organizations offering manpower and money. This year, Kids Voting Maryland has a goal of about $100,000 for the Harford effort.

Harford was chosen to introduce the program because it is considered a progressive school system and has a history of school and business partnerships, Ms. Steetle said.

The real test will come in September, Dr. Heiberger said. "There will be busloads from other [school] systems to see how Harford is doing," he said.

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