Campaign teaches pupils about politics

Creation of student councils spreads to middle and elementary schools


Moments before delivering her campaign speech for secretary, Amanda Rine burst into tears, overwhelmed by nerves. She was quickly surrounded by friends trying to console her.

Nearby, Austin Altman was calm.

"I think I'll make a good president," he said. "I show a lot of compassion."

It was election day at Triadelphia Ridge Elementary School, where Amanda and Austin were lobbying for their fellow fifth-graders' votes in the student council elections.

For the past two weeks, campaign season has been in full swing at the Ellicott City school, where pupils as young as second-graders got a hands-on lesson in politics and leadership. In Howard County, student councils - long a staple in high schools - have been branching out to middle and elementary schools in recent years.

"It lends itself to so many social studies lessons," said Alicia Berlin, a gifted-and-talented resource teacher and co-adviser of Triadelphia Ridge's student council. "It's such a natural teachable moment."

Moreover, the student council lets pupils have a say in the school's traditions and take ownership of their school, said Sandy Bresnick, another co-adviser.

"It's hard to encourage participation and increase awareness of events if you don't have involvement from all the students," said Bresnick, who teaches fifth grade. "The idea is that they can have a role, even at a young age."

But before they could sit on the student council, these pupils had to survive the elections. Pupils from second through fifth grades ran for classroom representatives, who serve as liaisons between their classmates and the student council. (By the middle of the school year, Berlin and Bresnick hope to bring first-graders into the mix.)

Additionally, fourth-graders were allowed to campaign for vice president or communication coordinator, while fifth-graders could choose a president and secretary. For the executive positions, there was a primary election in each homeroom and a general election in which the entire class was allowed to vote.

For the primaries, posters could hang only in a pupil's homeroom. During the general election, posters were allowed in the general-grade classroom area.

And absolutely no giveaways.

"I had a parent who wanted to bring munchkins," Berlin said. "We wanted things to be fair."

By Thursday, only the president and secretary positions were left to be decided.

Inside the fifth-grade classroom pod, colorful posters soliciting votes adorned storage cabinets.

"Vote for Leyla Balimtas for class secretary. Leadership for TRES," read Leyla's poster, which included a picture of herself with her dog, Jack.

"Choice is clear - vote for David as your secretary."

"Vote Sammie for president. A one way ticket to fun."

Leyla, 10, said she wants to be secretary because it's "a cool position, and I like helping the school become a better school."

Some candidates were running against their friends, which the advisers know can be tricky and an emotional issue.

Friends Samantha Stull and Dylan Cincotta both want to be student council president. But Samantha was philosophical about the situation.

"I would feel really upset if I didn't win, but I think whoever wins will make a lot of good choices," Samantha said. "I think that if it came down to two of us, Dylan would make a good president if I didn't win."

It was 2:30 p.m. Thursday and six presidential candidates and five for secretary were seated in front of the fifth-grade class, anxiously waiting for their turn to make speeches.

One by one, candidates explained why they would be the best person for the job and made promises.

"This is not a popularity contest, or pick your best friend," Leyla told her classmates. "It's about picking the most dependable person."

Danielle Fallon, a secretary candidate, said she has "good typing skills, can write quickly and am organized."

David Gerry ended his speech with his slogan: "Remember: Vote Gerry for secretary."

Kerry Heneghan, who ran for secretary, said she is a fast, accurate typist.

The presidential candidates had a similar theme: organizing more spirit days and having the best last year at Triadelphia Ridge.

"It's our last year here; let's make this year the most fun-filled ever," Dylan Cincotta said.

After the campaign speeches, the fifth-graders returned to their homerooms and cast their ballots, much to the relief of the candidates.

"I kind of lost my voice because I was so nervous," said Amanda Rine, whose nerves produced tears before the speech. "I lost my place my heart was beating so fast; I was scared."

Teachers counted the ballots Thursday but waited until the next day to announce the results. It didn't make it any easier on the candidates.

"I just want to know what's going to happen next," said Ashley Rausch, a presidential candidate who wasn't sure whether she could sleep Thursday night.

At the end of school Friday, the outcome was announced over the school's public address system.

Austin Altman, who had said he would make a good president, will get that chance. Leyla Balimtas, who said the election should not be a popularity contest, was popular enough to earn the secretary position.

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