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DOING THEIR CIVIC DUTY: High school students aged 14 to 18 are taking part in a summer school program at the University that helps educate students on matters of government and politics. The Junior Statesmen Summer School is a one-month program that sets out to build leadership skills in high school students.

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Civically-minded Students Get Political At Summer School Program on Campus

Matthew Hersh

It's summertime in Princeton, when it's not unusual to see an influx of youngsters taking part in the area's various summer programs. But this summer is different: while standing in line at Small World Coffee, you might notice a table of 15-year-olds debating politics as though they were Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala on CNN's Crossfire.

A recent tête-a-tête between two teenagers sipping iced lattés was recently overheard at Small World Coffee:

"Edwards is more fit for the presidency than Cheney."

"I don't know. Right now, we need to keep our leadership consistent through the Iraqi conflict." You might hear this exchange between two socially-conscious adults, but among high schoolers? This summer in Princeton, politically-minded youth are offering their opinions, and to hear them opine, as one notably outspoken cable TV host likes to say, these kids' opinions are more founded than you think.

Right now through August 2 on the University campus, the Junior Statesmen Summer School is teaching politically-inclined high school students from around the country an understanding of American democratic government, encouraging youthful idealism while examining the realities of "practical politics" and developing leadership and oral communication skills. The Junior Statesman program is holding parallel sessions this summer at Northwestern, Stanford, Yale, and Georgetown.

In a nutshell, the aim is to turn civically-minded students into civically-active students.

"The students don't necessarily have to run for office, but they do take responsibility for themselves, their personal decisions, and their political decisions," said Jessica Brow, program director of the Junior Statesmen Foundation.

Any political environment lends itself to an outgoing, ambitious personality, but Ms. Brow conceded that it is indeed rare to have an assemblage of young students who are passionate about government.

"One of the things that I love most about my job personally is that year-round, I'm around high school students who are very politically active, who know issues or want to get to know issues, and don't just learn about them but actually get involved in those issues as well," she said.

Largely recommended by teachers or counselors, 275 students enrolled in Princeton's program this summer, out of over 1,300 nationwide, with the program attracting students from 39 states, 6 U.S. territories, and 2 foreign countries.

That said, if the students are not quite at the level of Crossfire, but may be ready to take on Begala or Carlson sooner than you might expect.

Summer school students become members of the Junior State of America by belonging to individual, regional, high school-based chapters. From there, they meet regularly with members of their own chapters and with those from around their respective regions.

At Princeton's four-week program, students can choose from four different government courses, including Advanced-Placement U.S. Government, Comparative Government, U.S. Foreign Policy, and Campaigns and Elections. The students also immerse themselves in a strict schedule of three-hour government and speech classes and two hours of "balanced debates" on topical issues. The program culminates in a 15-page term paper.

Some of last week's debate topics included capital punishment and the U.S. Patriot Act. Not exactly summertime fodder for the average kid.

However, Ms. Brow said that while the students are able to satisfy and expand on their interests in government, the program also enables them to be socially interactive and to experience a college environment.

Since participating students hail from diverse political climates, topics discussed range from liberal to conservative, and everything in between.

"We're very non-partisan," Ms. Brow said, but she added that until now, few of the students involved have had an opportunity to discuss all sides of particular national issues.

Now in its 64th summer, the Junior Statesmen Foundation simply tries to make students more politically aware, Ms. Brow said.

"In a lot of cases, this is the first time these kids have had the opportunity to really talk about these things in a mature way with their peers," she said.

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