By Chelsea Boone
Capital News Service
Many high school students’ after-school activities consist of sports, clubs or the National Honor Society. But for Rockville High School seniors Anthony Ellis and Nicholas Cropper, one of their extracurricular activities this week included keeping politicians in line.
One day after CNN's Candy Crowley made news by moderating the presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, student journalists Cropper, 17, and Ellis, 16, served as moderators for the Montgomery County Board of Education candidates' forum. The students spent more than two hours on Wednesday evening firing off questions on topics such as closing achievement gaps, reducing class sizes and combatting childhood obesity.
Ellis, editor-in-chief of Rockville High School’s newspaper, The Rampage, and Cropper, the newspaper's integrity chief, were chosen by the paper’s faculty adviser, Jessica Nassau, to moderate the forum because of their leadership positions.
Cropper said he agreed to moderate because it’s an experience that not many students get.
“I just thought that this was a really cool and unique experience that not a lot of kids would get to do,” Cropper said.
Ellis took on the role to stay informed about his community.
“I really like to be involved on the issues in my community,” Ellis said. “Not only my community but national issues. I like to stay informed and I thought this would be a great opportunity to see where the candidates running in our district stand on key topics.”
Paula Bienenfeld, vice-president and education committee chairwoman of the Montgomery County Civic Federation, approached Nassau about having students moderate the federation's forum.
Bienenfeld said she thought it was important for students to be present at a forum that discussed topics of importance to them.
“We know the students are affected a lot by the decisions made by the Board of Education,” Bienenfeld said. “We sort of wanted students to be represented at the table.”
This is the second time the federation held a forum for candidates running for the Board of Education and the second time it used student moderators. The first was during the primary election where students from Montgomery Blair High School moderated.
Bienenfeld chose Rockville High School because the forum was held at Rockville Memorial Library and because the school’s newspaper is well-known and respected, she said.
Cropper and Ellis researched the candidates and important issues to prepare for their job as moderators.
Ellis also watched presidential debates for guidance.
“I’ve actually watched debates from past years: 2008, 2004, 2000,” he said.
Their preparation was put to the test when there were complaints from some candidates about the order in which they answered the questions. The moderators quickly resolved the issue.
“I just kind of wanted to stabilize the situation and kind of go to one candidate and kind of establish a uniformed way of getting to each candidate,” Ellis said. “I didn’t want something as small as order to kind of disrupt the conversation and disrupt the key issues that were being discussed.”
That problem defused, the crowd became a bit rambunctious when an audience-submitted question about the county’s Brickyard Road soccer fields project was asked.
The project, which would turn county farm land on Brickyard Road into soccer fields, is the subject of a pending lawsuit, which prevented incumbent school board members Phil Kauffman (At-large) and Chris Barclay (District 4) from discussing it. The moderators were prepared to move on to the next question until audience members insisted that the other candidates answer the question.
“I didn’t expect that question to rile them up before I asked it,” Ellis said.
If he could rewind to the moment, Ellis said, he would have had better control of the audience and would have had them direct their questions and comments to him and Cropper instead of speaking directly to the candidates.
“There were times where it became contentious. There were times where it was free-flowing,” he said. “That’s just a matter of experience—knowing when to step in and kind of get a grasp on what’s going on.”
Despite those situations, the students still did a good job, Nassau said.
“They asked their questions in a very professional manner," she said.
Bienenfeld agreed and said the federation will continue to use student moderators for future forums.
“I would encourage other organizations to involve students in their activities,” Bienenfeld said. “It went really well and they did a really great job.”