Mount Airy Middle School is decorated for a civics lesson that only comes around once every four years -- the presidential election.
Forget the candidates' political spin. When it comes to campaigning, the Carroll County school's seventh-graders seem to know all the essentials -- from researching Bob Dole's proposed tax cut on the Internet to wearing sandwich boards for President Clinton.
"It's the best way for me to get my message out to everyone in school," said seventh-grader Patrick Gore, 12, who donned the boards yesterday to advise his classmates to "Vote for Clinton or you're voting for crime."
But Mount Airy students won't just be studying presidential politics. This week and next, they and thousands of other pupils across Maryland and the nation also will be voting for president.
In Maryland, schools generally are participating in one of two mock elections -- the National Student/Parent Mock Election or Kids Voting Maryland.
The Student/Parent Mock Election group will conduct voting this week in 22 school systems and report national results tomorrow night via CNN and C-Span. Kids Voting will set up student polls side by side with actual voting machines in three counties -- Baltimore, Harford and Washington -- on election day, bringing parents and their children out to vote together.
"This is one of those rare opportunities where we can study something in school that is on the front pages every day and is being talked about around the dinner table every night," said Melissa Adelmann, a seventh-grade U.S. history teacher at Mount Airy Middle.
For schools, the mock elections often are treated as seriously as possible, down to requiring students to undergo mock registration at school to be eligible to vote.
Some schools have had representatives of the presidential campaigns speak to student voters, and Baltimore and Harford counties and Kids Voting recently held a debate of congressional candidates that was televised on the counties' education cable channels.
At one Howard County elementary school, complaints from parents and a state senator about an alleged anti-Dole bias in literature used in the school's mock campaign forced the school to shift from learning about this year's actual presidential race to a fictional race in the fictional land of "Centarea."
But at most schools holding mock elections, students have spent the past couple of weeks studying such matters as the electoral college, Clinton's push for school uniforms and Dole's tough stance on crime.
The exercises are aimed at encouraging students -- and their parents -- to learn the issues and become regular voters.
"Generation X has shown such a lack of interest, but this may be what is needed for the next generation to bring them back to the fold," said Judith Smith, Baltimore City schools' humanities office supervisor. "If we get them in the habit of voting at an early age, hopefully that will carry over after they turn 18."
At Joppatowne Elementary School, teachers have been getting students in that habit by holding a referendum on a new issue each week. Last week's issue -- "Should students have homework during election week?" -- was rejected by a landslide.
The walls of Joppatowne in Harford County are covered with election materials -- American flags, fliers urging pupils to vote and campaign posters for student government elections.
"The students may not understand all of the issues, but they're beginning to pick up on things like taxes and jails," said Beverley Lampke, a fifth-grade teacher.
Joppatowne students who vote in the Kids Voting polls on Election Day -- and receive a sticker to prove it -- will be invited to the school's "inaugural ball" the Friday night after the election.
But with any foray into politics comes the pitfalls of partisanship.
At Mount Airy Middle, math students measured a 100-foot "campaign-free" zone around their polling place in the exercise room.
At Northfield Elementary School in Ellicott City, fourth-graders took home a short assignment on the presidential campaign from a national student magazine this fall that some parents -- and a Republican state senator -- complained were biased against Dole.
"I think it's great to give young people exposure to the presidential election, but we've got to be careful about imposing biases on them in class," said Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, Howard County campaign chairman for Dole.
McCabe dashed off a letter of complaint to the Howard school superintendent, helping prompt Northfield's teachers to change their focus in a one-day exercise last week from the U.S. presidential race to the campaign for the leader of "Centarea."
Like the United States, Centarea's ruler was elected by an electoral college -- one with six states, one for each of Northfield's fourth-grade classes. The two candidates in the Centarea campaign focused on such issues as children's health care and year-round education.
"In fourth grade, the kids just vote how Mom and Dad vote anyway," said Northfield teacher Dan Lamberth. "With this, we gave them issues they could understand and forced them to make a tough choice."
For some high school seniors, the lessons are more than just practice. Those who are 18 can vote for real -- for the first time.
"I'm real excited to finally get a chance to exercise my rights and vote," said Randallstown High School senior Clifton Parker, who turned 18 on Oct. 20. Parker said he remembers voting in mock elections in school dating to 1988, when he supported George Bush.
"There's no way I'm passing up my first chance to do my duty as a citizen," he said. "I've been waiting for this a long time."
Pub Date: 10/29/96