One student yawned. Another twirled her hair. Several squirmed and watched the clock. But all 26 students in the government class at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, Md., sat up and listened when a guest speaker raised the prospect of "someone" raising the legal age to drive or drink in Maryland.
That "someone" could be a legislator in their state capital, and the "someone" who could determine whether it or not it happened were people like them, Maryland Sen. Patrick J. Hogan (D- Montgomery County) said.
"People tend not to know much about state government," Hogan told the students, and that is precisely why he was there in their classroom.
The Maryland state senator's visit to the school was part of a nationwide effort by the National Conference of State Legislatures to get students interested in politics. Billed as the nation's largest "bipartisan civic education outreach," the council estimated nearly one-third of the nation's 7,382 state legislators and more than 250,000 students participated in the Sept. 15-19 America's Legislators Back to School Week.
The program aims "to let the nation's students know that their ideas matter."
Lawmakers in Annapolis aren't seriously contemplating raising the legal age to drive or drink alcohol, but Hogan told Stateline.org he knows these issues grab high school students' attention and can help get them thinking about their role in making state public policy.
Seneca Valley High School principal Suzanne Maxey said the NCSL program "brings government down to a personal level to kids" and lets them see lawmakers as "real people," not someone on television.
Teacher Barbara Arrindell said Hogan's presentation in her government class helped students understand the issues state lawmakers tackle, something textbooks often can't do. Hogan discussed legislation he sponsored to prevent harassment via e-mail. He also talked about efforts to combat pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, located not far from where the students live.
Hogan encouraged students to think about politics, even though "running for office was the farthest thing from my mind in high school," and found that Seneca Valley junior Jason George was already mulling the idea.
Of the six schools Hogan visited that week, George was the only student to know how many state senators Maryland has (47) and what the state seal looked like (contains a farmer and a fisherman). "He really knows his facts and was interested," Hogan said.
Hogan has participated in NCSL's "Legislators Back to School Week" program every year since it began five years ago. He said this year he noticed students asked more questions about jobs and the economy. One high school student asked why the United States had money to make big Hollywood films but not to solve homelessness. Another wanted to know why the bank couldn't give his mother more time to pay off a loan. "You don't generally expect that out of a high school student," Hogan said.