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Students taught to discuss, debate and compromise in politics

Former middle and high school teacher Meg Heubeck is on a mission to get the country’s youth engaged in democracy.

Today her classrooms are more likely to include other teachers and organizations interested in politics.

“I am really proud of the fact that I am a teacher … and civics is my passion,” Heubeck told a luncheon audience of the League of Women Voters of the Charlottesville Area on Tuesday. “I grew up in a house where people talked about politics at the dinner table.”

As director of instruction at the Center for Politics’ Youth Leadership Initiative, Heubeck gets to talk politics anytime while working for University of Virginia professor Larry J. Sabato.

Sabato’s motto: “Politics is a good thing.”

League president Kerin Yates scanned the room of about 20 mostly die-hard members and presented them with a challenge.

“We all know that we have to replicate ourselves,” Yates said. “We are interested, how do we get the next several generations interested? If we don’t, democracy is in trouble.”

Heubeck moved to the area from Maryland in 2004 and was pleased to find that her favorite holiday, Election Day, has special meaning in Virginia where every November someone is on the ballot.

“Last Tuesday I jumped out of bed as fast as I could and was at the polls at 6:30 that morning,” Heubeck said. “I want my students to jump out of bed [on Election Day] too.”

The Youth Leadership Initiative supports over 50,000 teachers around the country by providing free resources such as civics lesson plans, mock election software and an E-Congress legislative simulator.

“Our three big skills are discourse, debate and compromise,” Heubeck said. “We get kids talking about issues, thinking critically and debating in a civil manner … learning how to reach and value compromise.”

Sally Thomas, a league member and former Albemarle County supervisor, asked if students were taught the importance of local elections.

“It is amazing the number of voters that don’t know what the Board of Supervisors is, does, or even that it exists,” Thomas said.

“We have resources on job shadowing a political person and attending a City Council meeting,” Heubeck responded. “Students realize those people are important in your everyday life.”

Former Albemarle School Board member Gary Grant asked if the Youth Leadership Initiative includes candidates beyond the two major political parties.

“We always include third-party candidates in mock elections,” Heubeck said. “We also have lesson plans on the topic [of third parties].”

Heubeck said the Charlottesville-Albemarle community is blessed to have “so many great civics teachers” but she worries that the pervasive climate of political polarization is discouraging youth engagement.

“We have to do everything we can to preserve civic education and social studies education in Virginia,” she added. “Every year the General Assembly tries to get rid of the third-grade [Standards of Learning test]. Not that I am opposed to getting rid of SOL testing, but if you get rid of social studies and nothing else, what does that say?”

“We have to discuss, debate and compromise, and we have to start at a young age so we are good at it when we turn 18,” Heubeck concluded.

The local League of Women Voters is among the financial supporters of Charlottesville Tomorrow’s reporting on local education issues.