SLHS assignment finds over half have no exposure to politics in the home
When it comes to politics and Storm Lake teenagers, there seems to be little middle ground. The ones who care, care big. The others, it seems, could care less.
Storm Lake High School government classes recently sent an assignment home with students to see how many have been exposed to any talk on politics or issues in their homes.
Over half say "never," government teacher Craig Lyon said.
"We talk about the issues that are in the newspapers, but it really starts at home. If the parents don't care, it's pretty likely their kids won't care either."
Nearly 40,000 Iowa high school students would be eligible to take part on the presidential caucuses this season - about the same number of Iowa students in college at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University combined.
Although their numbers are great enought to make an impact, in the election four years ago, it is estimated that less than 300 high schoolers turned out statewide, well under 1 percent.
Lyon hopes teens will be more engaged this time around. "It seems that there is a lot more youth interest in the campaign this year than there was in 2004," Lyon said.
While he isn't pushing any particular candidate, Lyon said that Barack Obama appears to be the difference-maker.
"Kids in Storm Lake have had two opportunities to hear him and meet him - and that face-to-face opportunity seems to be very important in reaching people at this age."
Immigration is clearly the top issue in the minds of the local students, according to Lyon.
"With the diverse population here, the students are saying that they want to see something done, and quite frankly, what has our Congress really done about it?"
The teenagers generally seem more forgiving to immigrants than they older population. Most of them have grown up in a population with several cultures, and some of them were brought to America as young children without having any choice in the matter, the teacher said.
"The students want to know what the candidates are going to do, and whether people who are here now may get a chance for citizenship."
Much of the rest of the rhetoric simply is not engaging local young people, Lyon adds.
"Social Security doesn't mean much to them at their age. Iraq is still an issue, but does not seem as important to them as it was in the past. They are somewhat interested in health care, if perhaps they have a family member with an illness who they are concerned about. Abortion doesn't come up much - those lines were pretty much drawn a long time ago and there isn't much a candidate is going to say that will impact their personal feelings on where they stand."
Many students at Storm Lake High School this week chose to attend lunch or other activities instead of listening to Obama in the gym.
A number of them said they have no interest in the issues or any particular candidate, and some even indicated they don't know who is running for president.
"There is a very surprising number of kids who don't watch TV news, and never pick up a newspaper," Lyon reflects. "If there is one change I've seen in the last five years, it would be that kids are less informed. They don't see any of it, including the presidential campaign, as being that important to them now in life."
Teachers are also frustrated with the choice of a caucus date on January 3 - during the holiday break for high schools and colleges.
"That's going to directly cut into the number of kids who will be taking part," Lyon said. "I'm not very happy about it. I think it's a poor move."
Iowa classrooms exist to teach, not influence students politically. "I can't tell them to go caucus. I can't tell them one way or the other. I put it on the board and remind them it is coming."
Lyon opted not to hold the mock caucus he had considered.
"There wasn't much point - it would have been Obama by a landslide," he predicted.
The charisma and style of Obama seems to connect with high-school age students, Lyon said. "They see him as younger, something new." Lyon said students are excited about a rumor that former President Bill Clinton is planning an appearance at either Storm Lake High School or Buena Vista University as early as this coming weekend. At presstime on Wednesday, the Hillary Clinton campaign said they could not confirm the appearance.
Teens in Iowa have a big advantage in having direct access to major candidates and political figures speaking in even small communities, Lyon said.
"They don't just read about it happening, they get to see the presidential campaign taking shape, first-hand."
Getting them engaged at a young age is crucial for the future of democracy - a system in which only about one in 29 Iowans take part in their caucuses, Lyon notes.
High school students who will turn 18 by election day next year are eligible to take part in the local caucuses, and may register at the events.