Kathleen Kelly and Natalie Black paid no attention to politics. And most of the other kids at Payson High School would have agreed: Politics and government events are a bore. Why bother?
But then Kathleen and Natalie decided on a lark to sign up for a chance to take a free Girls State trip to Washington, D.C., to see their government in action. They did not get to Washington, but they did get to take part in a week-long experience teaching them about government and politics at the University of Arizona.
They came back transformed, with their first, exciting glimpse of the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship.
Now, we’ll freely admit: This is a pretty depressing moment to pay attention to politics. We have been as dismayed as anyone at the inability of either party to directly address either the scourge of unemployment and the threat of a renewed recession or the long-term fiscal imbalance facing the nation.
Still, we are with Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the others.”
Generations of Americans have struggled mightily and paid dearly to bequeath to us a system of government that had somehow, despite itself, risen to every challenge.
That proud, often muddled history rises chiefly from the idealism, energy and courage of the American people — who have made sacrifices and always demanded better.
Still, every generation must rise afresh to the demands of citizenship.
That’s what makes the inspiring energy of young people like Kathleen and Natalie so vital.
Mind you, Americans look bad when it comes to political participation compared to most of the rest of the world. A study of turnout in legislative elections between 1960 and 1995 concluded that on average only 48 percent of registered voters in the United States bother to vote. That compares to 80 percent in Israel, 81 percent in Costa Rica, 71 percent in Japan, 93 percent in Chile and 95 percent in Australia. The U.S. ranked dead last among the 18 countries studied.
So stories about students like Kathleen and Natalie give us some frail basis for hope. But if you can follow through on the deep lessons of a short trip and get your fellow students involved — perhaps there’s hope.
Online learning presents possibilities and pitfalls
As someone wise once said: I came to the crossroads, so I took it. So this year the Payson Unified School District reached a crossroad of its own — and launched the Payson Virtual Academy.
What a brave, necessary, scary, complicated step.
The district took the plunge this semester by buying online curriculum from a national firm and assigning local teachers to help students complete key classes online — replacing last year’s dependence on a plug-and-play system operated by the Mesa Unified School District.
For the moment, the virtual academy provides an alternative for students who bombed math or English in a classroom. Students can make up missing classes in an online computer lab, with help from an on-site teacher.
However, a growing number of the 79 students signed up for the online classes seek diverse classes not offered in the regular curriculum — including several advance placement courses and things like Spanish and French.
Moreover, a small cadre of students plan to take their whole course of study online. The program should also provide alternatives for home-schooled students and perhaps for charter school students.
Online learning offers exciting opportunities — and worrisome pitfalls.
Broad-stroke studies suggest that most online students do as well as the average, in-the-flesh student. The online classes offer puzzles, videos, chat groups, informational links and lectures podcast from all over the world.
Students who can take responsibility for their own learning get great results from well-designed online classes. However, it’s also far easier for poorly motivated students to fall through the cracks, squandering months of effort with little gain.
Fortunately, the district seems determined to ensure that these online students get the supervision and support they deserve. Clearly, not all students have learning styles well suited to online classes — just as many students falter when strapped into their seats for endless lectures.
But if the district pulls it off, students will reap immense benefits. That’s especially true in a rural district without the resources to offer classes in paleontology, astronomy, poetry, the Roman Empire and Mandarin. Moreover, the launch of the virtual academy will one day dovetail with activities on Payson’s four-year university campus, which will offer the latest innovations in digital learning.
Clearly, we’ve reached the crossroads — and Payson schools seem ready to take it.