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Girls State out of reach for some

It is a tradition more than 50 years old, an annual chance for talented high school girls to learn about government and politics in Tallahassee and build their resumes at the same time.

But the opportunity to attend Girls State, a national program run by the American Legion Auxiliary, is eluding some Hillsborough students. Girls at six of 15 county high schools did not even get to try out for Girls State this this year, due to the auxiliary's shrinking membership, lack of money and a loose administrative process that means some schools slip through the cracks.

"I've known about (Girls State) since the beginning of sophomore year, and I've wanted it ever since," said Mary Potvine, a King High junior. "I'm sad I didn't get a chance to go up there and talk to people and make a difference."

To attend Girls State, a high school junior must get a recommendation from her school guidance counselor, then win the backing of a local American Legion Auxiliary unit. Auxiliary members are female relatives of veterans who served during wartime.

In the past, units have adopted certain high schools in their neighborhoods, but there is no system to make sure no school is passed over.

Once a girl makes the cut for Girls State, the auxiliary unit foots the $300 bill for a one-week stay in Tallahassee, where 300 girls from around the state create a mock legislature. The students meet legislators and Cabinet members, write bills, hold elections and argue cases on the mock state Supreme Court.

Girls State formally began in 1946, about 10 years after the American Legion veterans' group started Boys State, a similar event. Gov. Lawton Chiles and President Clinton, in Arkansas, both attended. Jan Platt, a Hillsborough County Commissioner, and U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich both attended Girls State in Florida.

"It's why I am where I am today. I would never have known women could have any involvement in government," Platt said. "Girls State gave young women the opportunity to see we could have a place in government."

This year at least, Potvine and girls at King, Chamberlain, Plant City, Armwood, Durant and Brandon high schools will not have that opportunity.

The reasons come down to money and membership.

Every unit can send one girl to Tallahassee, and for every 100 members, they can send one more. But as members age, auxiliary units in Hillsborough are shrinking. Many have barely enough money to promote their primary purpose, providing support for veterans and their families.

Unit 111 in Seminole Heights has always sent girls from Hillsborough High School, since the days when the county had only three high schools, said Marie Corcoran, Girls State chairman for the unit.

In good years, members tried to pick among King and Chamberlain girls, too, because no other units had adopted them.

But this year was not a good one for Unit 111, Corcoran said. Their counterpart, the American Legion post in Seminole Heights, stopped hosting bingo nights, so the auxiliary couldn't raise money by selling food to the players. As a result, they had only enough money to send one Hillsborough High student and a junior member of the unit, who attends Tampa Bay Technical High School, to Girls State.

No girls from King can even apply for a spot at Girls State, yet an American Legion post on E 139th Avenue is sending three King boys to Boys State. While Auxiliary bylaws limit Girls State to 300 participants to make sure every girl has a "job" in the mock Legislature, Boys State accepts 500 applicants.

"We don't think that's right, to deny us this opportunity, especially when all the boys are going to get it," said Maggie Atkins, a King junior. "It is a form of gender bias."

Even if a unit has only enough money to send one girl from among three schools, the King girls argue that applicants from all three should be interviewed for the spot.

Jacqueline St. John, Girls State chairwoman for Hillsborough and some parts of Hernando, said she is trying to convince local businesses and civic groups to donate cash to the units to send more girls. Only 16 local girls are going to Tallahassee for the June 6-13 event, down from 21 last year.

"I personally would send a contribution if someone would just call me," Platt said.

Those solutions, though, come too late for Potvine and Atkins. Organizers say this summer's class is already full.