An Annenberg School-sponsored program designed to use the Internet to help public high-school students learn about the Philadelphia mayoral primary surprised everyone—including the program’s creator.
By Phyllis Kaniss
It is only three blocks from my office at the Annenberg School for Communication to the entrance of University City High School. But when I arrived there one day last February to begin a new project bringing politics into schools, I knew right away that working in this new world wasn’t going to be easy. The dead giveaway was the WHYY cameraman cooling his heels at the entrance to the school.
I knew why he was there–to shoot videotape of Republican mayoral candidate Sam Katz as he fielded questions from students. I also knew why he was outside the school rather than inside with the candidate. Earlier that day, I had been on the phone with the communications director of the School District of Philadelphia, protesting her decision not to let WHYY, or any other TV station, follow a candidate into a school. “But you don’t understand,” I’d pleaded. “This project is about encouraging the media to cover students talking issues with candidates. Bringing the campaign into the classroom. And this is public television.” But she held firm. The district didn’t want students used as props in ads or for any other publicity stunt. WHYY would not be permitted to enter University City High that day.
Inside the school, I caught up with Katz. He didn’t seem to mind that he was about to spend an hour with mostly non-voters minus the sweetener of media coverage. “So these students have been studying the campaign?” he asked me. “That’s right,” I answered. “They’re developing a youth issues agenda.” When the candidate entered the crowded classroom and introduced himself, he noticed the list of issues on the blackboard. “Reducing crime,” he read out. “Whose idea was that?”
The class was silent. Two students were asleep on their desks. No one seemed to remember anything about crime, or any other issue on the list. Katz shrugged his shoulders, a little confused. “Well, let me tell you what I would do as mayor about crime in this city … ” he went on gamely.
He got little response from the students, until the subject of the police came up.
“Yo,” one of the students called out.
“My name is Sam. Or Mr. Katz. It’s not ‘Yo.’”
The student continued, “My cousin, he be standing on the corner one day, and the police come around and they took him to the station. And he doing nothin’. Just ’cause he black, they take him in and keep him there til his grandmother come and get him. That happen all the time to us. What you gon’ do about that?”
Katz responded. “What you are talking about is something called ‘racial profiling,’ which means that police stop people on the basis of their skin color. As mayor, I would do everything in my power to make sure that the police department did not practice racial profiling. I think we need to spend more time and effort training our police officers so that they don’t unfairly stereotype our city’s residents.”
Another hand shot up. “But they’re all bad anyway. On the take. In my neighborhood, the cops, they’re in with the drug dealers.”
“I will tell you, when I am mayor, I will investigate any situation you tell me about that suggests that a police officer has broken the law. But let me tell you something else. An accusation like that is very, very serious. Understand that if you make it, and it is found to be true, appropriate disciplinary action will be taken. But if you make that accusation and it isn’t true, well, then you will have to take responsibility.”
More hands went up, with more stories about kids being wronged by the police. Finally, Katz thanked the class for inviting him and quickly left.
“Why didn’t the students ask him about any of those issues on the board?” I asked the teacher on my way out.
“Oh, this wasn’t my class of seniors who are doing the project,” she answered cheerfully. “We had an assembly this morning, and it threw our schedule off. This was my ninth-grade class. They haven’t been studying the campaign.”
My heart sank. As I walked back to my office at Penn, I wondered what I could have been thinking three months before when I proposed this project to Annenberg School Dean Kathleen Hall Jamieson. How could I have possibly thought it would work?
What I had been thinking was that the old ways of learning about campaigns were not working. Eight years ago, I wrote a book describing the dismal media coverage of Philadelphia’s 1991 mayoral campaign: the seven-second sound bites on TV with one candidate calling another a drunk, the newspaper stories that focused almost completely on strategy and the “horse race.” And I knew that with commercial pressures tightening, it was unlikely to be better this year. I also understood the effects of such coverage. Research by Dean Jamieson and Dr. Joseph Cappella, professor of communication, has shown that news focused on strategy raises the level of public cynicism and hampers the ability to learn about issues.
It was bad enough that adults were getting turned off to politics, but watching my own two kids, I began to worry more about the future generation. At ages 10 and 12, my sons were getting most of what they called “news” from ESPN’s SportsCenter. How were they ever going to learn to be good citizens? That concern only deepened when I read a survey by the National Association of Secretaries of State showing that only about a third of young people between the ages of 18 and 24 had voted in the 1996 presidential election, compared to 50 percent in 1972–and the figure was down to 15 percent in the 1998 congressional elections. According to the survey, young people weren’t voting because they didn’t feel they knew enough about the issues. They weren’t learning about civics in school, or discussing politics with their parents, or keeping up with the news. What’s more, they didn’t feel that candidates were listening to their concerns. The report warned that we might be losing democracy’s next generation.
And that’s when the idea came to me. Maybe there was a way to get young people excited about politics and the news and, in the process, change the way all of us learn about campaigns. What if you encouraged high-school students, as a class project, to study campaigns, and used computers and the Internet to make it as much fun as playing a videogame? Newspapers and newscasts might be wedded to the old ways, but the World Wide Web was terra nova. Not only could the Web carry much more information on candidates and positions, but there were all kinds of possibilities for chat rooms and click-polls and surfing through archives and talking back through e-mail–things that might make civic participation really fun for kids.
These musings were to become reality sooner than I ever expected. In October 1998 the Annenberg Public Policy Center was awarded a $1 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to raise the level of the discourse in Philadelphia’s upcoming mayoral campaign. The project was called The Philadelphia Compact, and it would convene citizen forums, host debates and survey Philadelphians about issues. When I heard about the Compact, I asked the dean if she had any interest in using the Internet to stimulate political discourse in city schools. She jumped at the idea and decided to fund it through the Public Policy Center. “Let’s put a computer in every public high school in the city and have the students use it to study the campaign,” she said. The details she would leave to me.
Even before Sam Katz’s visit to University City High School, I had inklings that getting public school students hooked up to the Internet and excited about the mayoral campaign would have its rough patches. At a January 23 training session for teachers at the Philadelphia Inquirer building on North Broad Street, we hit the first.
The training day had been planned as an orientation and pep rally for the 33 public teachers–one from almost every high school in the city–whom we had managed to recruit within one short month. School Superintendent David Hornbeck L’71 opened the day by offering his support to the project, and then Philadelphia’s current mayor, Ed Rendell C’65, spoke for 30 minutes about the need to focus students on the issues of the campaign, and how a candidate’s leadership qualities and even his or her ability to serve as a cheerleader for the city were crucial also. But when he invited questions, the first was, “Do you expect us to get a salary increase in our next contract?” and the second was, “How could you have possibly extended Superintendent Hornbeck’s contract for an additional year without consulting teachers?” So much for pure pedagogical interest in a new educational project, I thought.
Soon, it was my turn to get up and describe how the project would actually work. “The school district is going to supply each of your classrooms with a computer with Internet access,” I explained. We had been told that there was no need for us to buy new computers; that it would be better if we provided each class with a stipend. “Philadelphia Online, the online arm of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, has created a Web site for the project, with links to all kinds of campaign information. Your students will be able to use the site to read candidates’ position papers and daily news coverage. They’ll be able to search for stories in the archives, and even to discuss the campaign online with other schools. And once we get off the ground, you’ll get a media partner–a television or radio station or a newspaper–to help your students make their voices heard. In fact, we’ve decided to call the project ‘Student Voices in Campaign ’99.’” I looked out at a sea of skeptical faces.
When I sat down, a veteran teacher from Bok Technical School leaned over and warned, “There’s going to be a problem. Most of us don’t have phone lines in our classrooms. And it’s not going to be easy to get them in.”
He was right. The computers the district planned to install would be reconditioned machines, old and slow, and the majority of the classrooms had no phone lines. We did need to buy each class a brand new computer after all, configure them–and, in many cases, make deliveries to teachers. At the same time, we had to nag the school district to work with Bell Atlantic to get phone lines into each classroom.
While we worked to get the students online, I went to see some of the classrooms. One teacher, a year from retirement, said he’d like me to see the obstacles he faced. He said that everyone in his school’s working-class neighborhood who could “get out” had, and that it was hard to make much progress with the students who were left. When I visited his class, he was going over an assignment in which students had been asked to interview family members about the issues they cared about.
“Megan, who did you interview?”
“Good. What issues did she say concerned her?”
“Okay, what about crime?”
“I dunno. Crime. That’s all she said.”
“Well, is there anything you yourself think about crime?”
When the class was over, the teacher looked almost pleased. “You see what I mean?” he said.
I left the school thinking how naive I had been. When I conceived this project, I had pictured my own middle-class, private-school-educated kids. How could I have thought it would work with deeply under-achieving public-school students living in poverty? “Everyone who could get out has. This is what is left,” the teacher had said. Could we accomplish our lofty goals with what was left–with or without computers and the Internet?
But there was no turning back. The computers were on order and teachers were already calling me to find out who their media partners were. We had a great Web site pouring out campaign information and linking directly to the candidates’ sites. By early March, all the computers had been delivered and many phone lines installed. Most of the students and many teachers had never used the Internet before. There was some satisfaction in realizing that they were going on the Internet for the first time to learn how to become better citizens. We were on our way.
One of the first things I had done in January was to write to the mayoral candidates to ask their help in getting students turned on to the Web. I even sent them an article from the Florida Times-Union, describing how Jeb Bush had used the Internet in his successful campaign for governor of Florida, including creating a “School Zone” on his Web site for students studying the race.
A few days later, I was delighted to see that most of the candidates were already setting up Web sites and that Democratic candidate Dwight Evans’ site featured a “Student Center,” designed “especially for those students following Philadelphia’s mayoral race.” Wow, I thought. Somebody’s actually listening. The kids were going to have a lot of fun with the interactive parts of this site, I thought.
The Web site had been set up by Evans’ deputy campaign manager, David Sirota, who later e-mailed me to suggest that his candidate unveil it in one of our classes. I talked to teacher Bob Lemoine at Germantown High, who I knew had a functioning computer, and we set up a visit for February 26. Unfortunately, the date turned out to be a few days after the school district faxed its “no TV cameras in schools” policy to every principal in the system. “I’m really sorry, but I don’t think we can make this a real media event,” I told Sirota. But Evans, a state representative, wanted to come to Germantown anyway. It was his alma mater, and he liked talking to students.
And so on February 26, Evans arrived at Germantown High–to an empty classroom, the result of yet another of those assemblies I came to hate. But he didn’t seem to care. He chatted with me about news coverage of the campaign and answered questions about his Web site from Annenberg School graduate student Jenny Stromer-Galley. Jenny was doing her dissertation on candidates’ use of the Internet and had been most impressed with the sophistication of the Evans site. “You have to come down to my campaign office and meet David Sirota, the young man who set up the whole Web site,” Evans said. “He’s in his twenties, but let me tell you, he’s a whiz at this stuff.”
Finally, the students filed in, and the questions began. “Mr. Evans, my name is Maya Cox. I would like to know why you support school vouchers and how you think that would help the public school system.”
Evans, perched on a stool at the front of the class, listened carefully. “I’m not so much for vouchers as I am for choice,” he said. He started out speaking in the language of a politician reciting his position, but seemed to sense the students were not quite getting it. “Listen,” he said, pointing to one of the girls, “that young lady is wearing, what color is your blouse? It’s great, by the way.”
“Chartreuse,” she answered with a shy laugh.
“Chartreuse. Well, she got to choose what color blouse she was wearing this morning, and that’s all I’m saying to you–I want to give families more choice in where their kids are going to school.”
The questions continued and Evans worked hard at answering in terms the kids could understand. He said that some students needed to think about setting up their own businesses, which led into his ideas for neighborhood economic development. He talked about government not always being the answer and about how neighborhood residents needed to get involved in improving conditions for themselves.
The students were rapt. The bell rang and not one of them moved. Lemoine asked Evans if he had more time and the candidate said he’d stay until every question was answered.
For the first time I began to think the project might work. With good teachers guiding them in their research, students at neighborhood high schools could ask excellent questions–and they seemed genuinely interested in learning the answers. And the candidates were not only willing to come talk, they were actively trying to teach the students. My only regret was that no TV cameras had been there to witness it. Not once in 1991 had this kind of substantive discussion of how to tackle the city’s problems made it into media coverage of the campaign.
I floated back to campus and the excitement lingered–until the next morning, when I picked up the Inquirer and saw a photograph of a dejected Dwight Evans filling three-quarters of the front page. “Rep. Evans Shakes Up Staff Over Web Site Dirty Trick,” read the headline. Someone had created a fake Web page for another Democratic candidate, John White Jr., posting damaging racial comments White was said to have offered in a Latino newspaper. And that someone, the story revealed, turned out to be a friend of David Sirota. Evans had immediately fired Sirota, and plans for the Web site, the story said, were on hold.
Well, I thought glumly, there goes my “Student Center.”
The quest for media partners was in some ways the most crucial piece of the project. Every time a class was featured in a neighborhood newspaper, every time kids saw themselves on TV, I knew it would make them feel important and spur them on to greater things. What’s more, it seemed a great way to sneak issues into campaign coverage. Luckily, it also turned out to be the easiest piece. Everybody was looking for a new angle on the campaign, and teenagers studying the race made a good story. And asking even the most hard-driving media professionals to do something for kids seemed to guarantee the answer would be yes.
The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Online set up a project Web site that was a model of a new kind of journalism. Yes, there were headlines focused on fundraising and endorsements, but they were submerged beneath others on the candidates’ stands on key issues. Students were able to search databases to see how bad, say, the crime rate was in their neighborhood and vote using click-polls after reading background on a campaign issue. The Daily News offered to create a Youth Editorial Board; the city’s African-American newspaper, the Tribune, agreed to run student op-ed pieces; and radio stations like Power99 and WIOQ offered to have students talk about the campaign on-air.
But it was the television stations that amazed me. I screwed up my nerve to ask Dave Davis, the general manager of WPVI, if his station would consider airing a candidates debate in which students would ask the questions. Without hesitation, he said yes. It would turn out to be one of only four televised forums in which the candidates got to make their cases directly to the public–and it would be focused completely on young people.
When I called over to WCAU, the NBC affiliate, I was told the station’s news director wanted to meet with me.
“This is what I want to do,” Steve Schwaid announced in a rapid-fire conversation. “I want to work with the class from CAPA [High School for the Creative and Performing Arts]. That’s our adopted school. I want to put kids on the air, have them do civic journalism about the mayor’s race. We’ll put them in a segment of our Saturday morning newscast–it’ll lead into our teen block. Let’s pick a couple of students and put them live on air each week–they’ll interview the candidates, and report on the campaign.”
The producer of the Saturday morning newscast, Lydia Reeves, asked, “Steve, when exactly do you want to start this?”
“Can we do one a week from Saturday for the beginning of sweeps?”
I thought I heard him wrong. We had not yet held our teacher-training session; I had not even met the CAPA teacher; and the station wanted student reporters on the air by the following Saturday? It was a crazy notion–but not one I was willing to refuse. No television station in the country had ever done something like this.
In the weeks that followed, we had to scramble to make it happen–especially when the station, under the gun to raise the newscast’s ratings, announced that it would not be able to spare any resources to help the kids do their stories. If there was going to be ‘civic journalism,’ it was going to be up to the feisty CAPA teacher, Sue Rosenthal, who guided the class’s research on issues and candidates, and the Annenberg School’s audio-visual coordinator, Ellen Reynolds, who helped the students shoot pieces with the school’s video equipment.
But happen it did. The five CAPA kids selected to go on air interviewed each mayoral candidate live, asking about their plans to improve schools, deploy police and deal with truancy. By weeks nine and 10, they were out at the Art Museum, doing live remote pieces on voter-registration drives, and going to the warehouse where voting machines were stored, to demonstrate how to cast a vote. Even when the students stumbled or pranced, they looked great on television and their pieces were both delightful and substantive.
Still, CAPA was a magnet school, drawing some of the most talented students in the city. It was not until the WPVI Candidates Forum, taped on March 27, that I realized just how much teachers at the neighborhood high schools had managed to accomplish. Each class sent us questions for the candidates. Not only were they good, they were dramatically different from those journalists tend to ask at such debates. “What do you think distinguishes you from Mayor Rendell?” one asked, while another wanted to know: “How can recreation centers be used to improve neighborhoods?”
But it was after the formal question-and-answer session was taped that the real spectacle began. Candidates Happy Fernandez and Dwight Evans stayed to answer more questions and found the students bubbling over with issues they wanted to discuss, and opinions they wanted to offer. I watched as the producer, Linda Munich, looked on, obviously impressed. “They’re really interested, aren’t they?” she said. “And they know more than anybody gives them credit for.” She was so struck with this impromptu interchange that she invited six students to come back to the studio a few days later to tape an additional half hour for the program.
I began to see the process repeated. Neighborhood-newspaper reporters would agree to do a story on the project and come back blown away by the students. “They interviewed me,” said a 25-year-old reporter for the Chestnut Hill Local, who visited Roxborough High. “They knew so much about the campaign–more than a lot of my friends do,” he said. A WPVI producer who went to Germantown High to shoot a story was so impressed by how well the students navigated the candidates’ Web sites that he and his cameraman wound up spending an hour and a half at the school. Usually, the TV cameras only came to interview students when one of their fellow teens had been shot or stabbed.
The journalists were beginning to discover that young people–even from the poorest neighborhoods and the most troubled public schools–cared deeply about the problems facing their neighborhoods and the city. And, with the help of their teachers, they were jumping at the chance to make their voices heard.
By April, I had figured out a way for other people to witness candidates coming into classrooms and answering students’ questions. I got the Pennsylvania Cable Network to agree to tape each candidate visiting one of my classes and then talked all six candidates into coming to be taped. The programs were aired the nights of the appearances and repeated regularly afterwards.
Those who watched saw a very different image of inner-city youths and political candidates from the ones they were used to on the evening news. The teens were articulate and informed, and the candidates passionate about the city. And it was not just the students doing the learning. In a campaign in which public education was taking center stage, the candidates were seeing firsthand what was going on inside city schools. And learning to speak to a whole new constituency.
I thought back to the survey I had read last fall, where young people said politicians weren’t listening to their concerns. In the 1999 Philadelphia primary campaign, candidates were listening to young people’s voices.
As the primary elections neared, the candidates frantically tried to win votes and raise more money–but they kept saying yes to our invitations. It helped that by now the school district had modified its media policy, and we were able to get media coverage for every event. At Masterman, the class held a scripted mock debate in which students portrayed each candidate, and three of the actual candidates sat through every word. Democratic candidate John White Jr. congratulated his stand-in: “Would that all of us could have been that succinct on the campaign trail.” John Street stopped at Ben Franklin High and told students, “Look at me and know that you can be anything–anything–you want if you work hard enough at it.” At Roxborough High, Dwight Evans explained why fighting gun violence was his number-one priority, then asked how many students had guns in their homes. More than half raised their hands.
On the day of the mayoral primary, many of the classes held mock elections, and cheered their 18-year-old classmates who could vote in the actual one. In the end, John Street, president of Philadelphia City Council, won the Democratic primary over his four opponents, and began preparing to face Republican Sam Katz, who had run unopposed, in the fall general election.
With the primary over, the students went into high gear to produce portfolios of their work. In early June, representatives of each class presented their work in a 17th floor conference room at the Pew Charitable Trust’s offices, as part of a competition for class prizes. Their work was astounding: Web sites created by students describing where each candidate stood on the issues; printed voters’ guides detailing candidates’ responses to questions; public- service announcements urging young people to vote; youth surveys, complete with margin of error noted. The judges were most touched, though, by the learning-disabled students at South Philadelphia High, who had colored tee-shirts as a way of getting across the message to vote.
At a June 10 awards ceremony at College Hall on Penn’s campus, we presented awards to the schools. Dean Jamieson had planned to give out three cash awards, but, after the student presentations, we decided to recognize every class that handed in a portfolio in some way. The students and their teachers positively beamed as they came up to the podium to accept their awards.
After the ceremony, I stopped to chat with Germantown High teacher Bob Lemoine, whose class had taken fourth place. “You know, Phyllis, when I started with this project, I thought it would never work,” he told me. “None of it, not the part about the media partners, not the candidates’ coming to classes. My students said, ‘No candidate is ever going to talk to us. We’re not important enough.’ But then Dwight Evans came, and Happy Fernandez. And then Channel 6 came and spent an hour and a half with us. Well, now all I can say is, we’ve turned into believers.”
And so had I.
Dr. Phyllis Kaniss CW’72 is a project director at the Annenberg School for Communication and the author of The Media and the Mayor’s Race and Making Local News.