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Morgan Kelly (left) from Saranac High School and Assemblywoman Janet Duprey with delegates from Clinton and Essex county high schools
Morgan Kelly (left) from Saranac High School and Assemblywoman Janet Duprey with delegates from Clinton and Essex county high schools

Students gather to meet lawmakers, talk politics

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NCPR kicked off election coverage with a series of stories this week. See below for more on the 23rd district race for the House of Representatives.

Politics are everywhere these days, from the bitter Republican primary fight that's playing out on our TV screens to the redistricting battle in Albany that could shake up politics right here in our own backyard. As 2012 goes on, the news and conversation will only get louder and more intense.

Most high school students can't vote, but politics plays a big role in their lives, too. And they're paying attention, at least the teens are who gathered recently in Peru to talk about government and politics. Our correspondent Sarah Harris sends this report.

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So full disclosure. Not so long ago I was in high school. I was passionate about some parts of politics, completely apathetic about others. But what I didn’t understand when I was a teenager was how government affected my life. So what impressed me most was how the students gathered at Peru Central School’s auditorium was how they were connecting the dots, talking about how government and politics shape their lives in really specific ways.

"I know that in my school we’ve gone through a lot of cuts. And last year we went through the budget cuts with teachers losing jobs or losing funds to our academic programs, teachers had to take a pay freeze," said Morgan Kelly, who goes to Saranac High School. We sit next to each other and talk a bit while the other students file in. Morgan looks really professional in dress pants, and a blue sweater. For her, the biggest issue in the North Country is education funding.

"Like last year we had a paper shortage which is tough, because you really need paper if you’re gonna be in a school," Morgan continued. "I think it’s something we need to focus on a bit more."

So here’s my theory. Like a lot of us, high schoolers think about politics in one of two ways. They’re either really specific, like Morgan. Or they conceptualize. They think on a big scale. McKenna Hunter from Northeastern Clinton Central School. He is sitting in the front row of the auditorium. He thinks those education cuts could reshape people’s lives in ways that go beyond reams of paper.

"I feel it’s a very important issue up in the North Country because there are business financial classes in the area that are being cut as you know our country is going through an economic downfall so I don’t feel its right to cut those classes," McKenna said. "There’s music and art classes that are looking at getting cut and suicide rates are increasing around the nation because kids are failing to express themselves properly and then I look at sports and other things and I see that as obesity increases in America and health goes down we need ways to increase the health of our youth."

The event today is organized by the League of Women Voters. Banners are draped onstage. State lawmakers Theresa Sawyward, Betty Little and Janet Duprey are here. They hand out certificates to all the participants.

During the question and answer session, the kids ask about all kinds of things, insurance for people with down syndrome, internet censorship. The room quiets when Athena Peppe, a senior from Keene Central School, confidently takes the microphone and talks about the way government responded to Tropical Storm Irene.

"A lot of people think that the damage is in the past," Athena said. "Like my friends house their whole yard is gone its like porch to river so if it rains again people are still afraid that they could use their house immediately. So just letting people know that the damage is still there and that it’s still something to worry about in funding."

Athena says that watching her community recover from a natural disaster made her think a lot about local government and advocacy work. But she’s not so crazy about presidential politics. Even though the national election’s making headlines all over the place, students here aren’t really into it.  

Rachael Abrahamson is from Westport Central School. "To be honest, they all—I don’t find anything that I really truly think could support us and lead us. I know that’s sad to say. I’ve been following them and I just can’t find one," she said. 

For Ticonderoga high schooler Maura Jebb, the challenge is finding candidates who share her convictions, her beliefs. "The biggest issue for me is abortion. I’m very pro-life and I find it difficult to find people who run for government who are pro-life," she said. 

Most of the state legislators representing the North Country are women. The lawmakers at today’s event talk about the challenges they’ve faced as female politicians. So I take Rachael aside and ask her if she still thinks that’s an issue, a hurdle that could shape her life. 

Her response was thoughtful: "Even now in high school, I know that guys change but they definitely look down on women still in this age which isn’t right. There’s even jobs where women make 25% less than men do usually, it is not right because we have some very strong women leaders," Rachael said. 

The goal of this event is to build a sense of civic engagement. And the cool thing is, it seems to work. That whole stereotype about high schoolers being apathetic? It just doesn’t apply to these kids.

They’re not reactionary or simplistic. And even though they recognize that politics can be slow and complicated, these students think the democratic process can actually change things. Here’s McKenna Hunter from Northeastern Clinton Central School, who says he might even consider a career in politics.

"Whether I’m an international politician through the UN or whether it’s just congress or whatever, I just want to make a difference in people’s lives every day," he said. 

In a season full of attack ads and Super-PAC media blitzes, this kind of engagement feels radical. In theory, kids have come here to listen to the politicians. But I’m hoping that politicians are listening to these kids.

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