TAMPA — Within the walls of an East Bay High School classroom, the students researched politicians named John McCain and Barack Obama. They wrote essays on whom they support for president and why.
Somewhere along the way, they embraced the spirit of a school system with "History Alive" lessons and bragging rights to a $2-million "Project ELECT" federal grant.
A field trip to see American politics in action seemed only reasonable. Their classroom sits in southeastern Hillsborough, a battleground region of a battleground state. The class proposed two trips — no bias here — to attend campaign rallies for McCain and Obama.
"This is history," said 17-year-old senior Kelly Sobrito. "To be living in it and getting to go see it, I thought was a better experience than just reading it in a book or learning it in a class."
But their newfound excitement about the political process would come with a price.
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Not so fast, school officials said to the field trip. From their perspective, the intersection of real-life politics and the classroom setting is cause for concern.
School Board attorney Tom Gonzalez drew firm lines:
• Schools cannot make political endorsements, including a field trip to a campaign rally. But attending a debate would be fine, if one were held in the Tampa Bay area.
• Schools may not invite a candidate for office as a guest speaker in class. But someone who already holds office is a suitable speaker.
• Teachers cannot tell students which candidates to support. But they can celebrate voter registration drives and mock elections on campus.
No one prohibits students from attending a political rally during school hours. They can always do what Gonzalez did as a student when presidential candidates Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson stumped in Tampa: sign out of class with parental permission.
But today's students pay a price. Since a campaign event does not count as official school business, they would have to forfeit some exemptions from semester exams, which Hillsborough offers as an attendance incentive.
Most of the students taking college-level American government at East Bay High decided the chance to live through history was worth it. They signed out of school twice, coordinating trips to see McCain and Obama.
"When you see these things in real life, it makes it so much more real to the lesson," said 18-year-old Joshua Padro, who was awestruck by the crowds at both rallies. "You're not just sitting in some dark windowless classroom reading about it."
An Obama supporter, Padro found himself more receptive to McCain after hearing the candidate make his pitch in person. And one day he can tell his children about both experiences — how Obama looked directly at a classmate, while McCain shook that student's hand.
But Padro felt badly about the students who worried about losing their exam exemptions and stayed in school. He felt the policy was unfair.
He and several like-minded classmates got together to research the district's policies. They learned about the School Board's mission: To provide an education that enables each student to excel as a successful and responsible citizen.
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Seven students approached the podium at the School Board meeting last week, clutching white note cards. Each planned to speak for 30 seconds, so the group would meet a three-minute time limit for public comment.
They highlighted the board's commitment to developing citizens.
"We believe the best experiences lie outside the four walls of the classroom and in the real world," Kayla Westbrook, 17, said in the presentation.
The students proposed a new policy, complete with a system of checks and balances. They would let Advanced Placement government teachers organize field trips for classes to see campaign events directly connected to their studies, subject to principal and district approval.
District leaders pledged to study the request, which would preserve the prized attendance incentives.
Gonzalez, the board attorney, remains unsure. He doesn't see how the district could control access to political events. Can a class attend a major party rally, but restrict students from a fringe extremist group?
But in real life, emotion goes a long way in politics, too.
Shortly before she rose to salute the students with a standing ovation, board member Doretha Edgecomb asked, tongue in cheek, if they could negotiate one more thing: Could they not run for the School Board in the future?
Letitia Stein can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.