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Suburban high schoolers gather for debate watch party

Wednesday night, Wheaton North High School in Wheaton, IL will be filled with over two hundred high school students, but it's not a school dance. The students will gather to watch the presidential debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama.
Gwynne Ryan, program manager, says the students will use candidate scorecards and maybe even play Bingo at this and other debate viewing events throughout the month. Teachers will host post-debate debriefings, some of which may spill over into the classroom. 

Ryan, who has been a teacher for fifteen years, says even students who are too young to vote have something to gain from the program.

“Lots of times we find that students think they support one party or the other, but when you really get into the issues, and where different political parties stand on those specific issues, the kids see that who they support may vary.”

The events are organized by the suburban arm of Chicago’s Mikva Challenge organization. The Mikva Challenge, named for former U.S. Rep. Abner Mikva, is a non-partisan program that aims to help high school students become more politically engaged. From voter registration drives to election judge training, their aim is to help young people become better citizens.

One of these young voters is Laurise Johnson, a freshman at Howard University. Johnson spent last summer as a Mikva fellow, focusing on issues like health, violence and youth safety while learning about the importance of being politically informed. Johnson says that, while she has been very busy during the first weeks of school with naval ROTC training, she wasn’t too busy to organize a debate watching party of her own in the college dorms.

“As soon as I was able to register to vote, I got registered back in Chicago,” Johnson said, “So I’ve been making sure all my friends here at Howard go through the correct procedure of getting registered, and getting absentee ballots.” 

One group of Mikva students, however, won’t be watching the debates together this year. Mikva Executive Dir. Brian Brady says in Chicago’s urban neighborhoods, it’s too dangerous to keep students away from home that late. Mikva hasn’t hosted debate viewing parties in the city since 2004.

Gwynne Ryan, who taught in the city for seven years before moving to the suburbs, says it’s restrictions like these that can actually make kids living in the city more engaged.

"In the city kids are aware that there are major issues in their life or political issues in their life that affect their daily existence, whether its the school board, whether it's the CTA, whether it's the Mayor's Office, etcetera." Suburban kids, in turn, get more of a push from their parents towards taking a more active role in the system.

The first of four debates between Romney and Obama will focus on domestic policy. It airs at 9pm EST / 8pm CST Wednesday night.

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