MIDDLETOWN, NJ - At a time when the status of civic education in America is being seriously queried, Middletown High School South students and their teachers worked in concert with the League of Women Voters (LWV) to present the history of enfranchisement in the United States of America. The program is part of a LWV of Monmouth County initiative Energizing Young Voters, which was created as part of the League’s mission of voter and civic education and was presented in March, during National Women’s Month. As the high school observed a hybrid schedule, the presentation was simultaneously presented in school and in a webinar.
Five Middletown students Jessica Hoffmann, Scott Melski, Charlotte Parauda, Lillian Hardwick and Sophia Luna narrated the hour-long, virtual google presentation.
Senior Scott Melski commented on his part in the program’s presentation,” I have recently increased my involvement with Middletown's League of Woman Voters to promote both registering to vote and explaining the disparity that existed in who was and was not allowed to vote in this country, including some of the differences that still exist to this day. Allowing my generation's voice to be heard and allowing students at South to have a say in society has always been a priority to me in high school.”
PHOTO: Students participate in the voting webinar
Twenty other students played the interactive roles of voter avatars patiently awaiting their turn along the arduous timeline for their right to vote. When they won the right to vote, they were told to turn on their cameras in the virtual presentation.
Junior Jessica Hoffmann explains, “Slowly as our timeline progressed, more and more people turned on their cameras. This resonated a lot with me because the visual aspect of this portion really showed how long it took for everyone to gain the right to vote and showed how long people had to fight for this right.”
The presenting students explained how the fight for the vote was fraught with suffering, fighting and death. It took two wars to create two amendments to expand the right to vote for some citizens. While it took 60 years and two generations of suffragists through politicking, protesting, imprisonment and torture to deliver the feminine half of the population the right to vote. And progress was often beset with setbacks as Jim Crow laws stripped African Americans of a right they had won over 100 years before.
The students also learned some facts they may not have recalled in their history books. As Sophomore Lillian Hardwick points out, “I didn’t previously realize how many groups of people didn’t gain the power to vote until much later in history.” This included Asian Americans who were not allowed to be American citizens until 1953 or Native Americans, the original residents of this country, who did not gain American citizenship and subsequently, the right to vote, until 1957.”
Junior Charlotte Parauda summarized, “The presentation provided insight in the long struggle to get the right to vote for all and how justice and the right to vote is still an issue that needs to be dealt with in society today.”
In New Jersey, for instance, the right to vote was only restored to people on parole and probation last year, a change championed by the LWV. The current voting rights bills HR 1 and S1, the For the People Act, and HR 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, currently sit at the doorstep of the Senate awaiting a vote to provide national protection against voter suppression laws which are rampant in most states around the country.
When asked to comment on the value of the program to her fellow classmates, sophomore Sophia Luna stated, I think that it definitely brought out the conversation of thinking about registering to vote. It also informed them on the many issues surrounding the inequality within the voting system.”
The League of Women Voters in Monmouth County has created a treasure trove of civic, educational programs over the past few years that aim to empower young voters and help them learn how to defend democracy. The director of education, Patricia Supplee, explains, “We have designed and presented various civic educational programs both in person and virtually to over 16 school districts in Monmouth County, and in school districts as far south as Cumberland County and as far north as Bergen County. In addition, we have worked in several NJ universities and with various statewide educational and civic organizations. We work with and seek collaboration with educators, particularly social studies and civic education teachers, and community leaders.”
In Middletown High School South, that collaborator is social studies teacher Anthony Nemati, who welcomed the League of Women Voters to High School South for a presentation on how to vote in the unusual 2020, mostly mail-in-ballot election.
Mr. Nemati comments, “Over the past two years High School South and the League of Women Voters have cultivated an excellent relationship. Through the Government, Law and Public Policy Pathway, the League and students at South were able to meet on several occasions with excellent results. The meetings were always extremely positive. The students always provided excellent feedback after each meeting with the League. This relationship extended outside the classroom. Some of our young ladies with the GLP3 pathway have decided to join the League as a result of our meetings which I am very pleased about.”
Marianne Kligman, who worked directly with the students for this presentation through the League of Women Voters of Greater Red Bank, explains that this relationship is a most cherished one, adding, “The students delved into the Leagues’ work, studying their positions on all programs from heath care and the environment, to the census and immigration. They have been involved on hyperlocal issues, brainstorming how we can increase voter registration in our own area. Later in the year, we hope to train the students as ambassadors to register other students to vote, as the best way to communicate with young people is through their peers.”
Tony Nemati adds, “One of our goals at Middletown South and with the GLP3 pathway is to promote the importance of leadership in our community and this program helps the GLP3 pathway with that goal. I am very happy with our students deciding to take up community leadership roles as a result of their work with the League of Women Voters.”