The projects--designed for students from kindergarten through high school--range from the creative to the mundane and zigzag across just about every academic field. But the goal behind them is singular: Make sure Marylanders stand up to be counted come April 1, 2000.
As part of a Census Bureau program designed to increase awareness of the 2000 survey, schools across the state are planning activities aimed at explaining the importance and concepts of the census to students and spurring them to encourage their families to participate.
The activities, promoted in lesson plans created for the government by the educational publishing company Scholastic and available free to any teacher or school (see www.census.gov for information), each target a specific age group and may or may not directly refer to the actual census. Some of the suggested lessons get students to design television commercials, interpret population density maps, learn the difference between median and mean, draw pictures about an imagined future and decide where to locate a new school, based on a map and demographic information.
The lessons may be integrated through social studies, math, geography, science, civics and even art classes.
Census officials are meeting with local superintendents and principals to try to interest them in the Census in Schools project, and, in many cases, their efforts to pique interest have worked. Some districts, such as Montgomery County, are planning to integrate census activities into all its schools, according to census officials.
Southern Maryland school officials said this week they are just beginning to implement the Census in Schools program to help their counties publicize the census. Schools in areas that in the past have been missed or undercounted have already been identified by census officials.
A major impetus of the project is the fact that in the 1990 Census, more than 2 million children--half the undercount--were missed.
Census Bureau Director Kenneth Prewitt said recently at a media briefing that one reason children might be so poorly counted is because many don't live in "standard households." If children split their time among relatives, or come from unstable homes, or float in and out of foster care, adults might not take the responsibility to include them on a census form, he said.
"We really are putting a lot of weight on Census in Schools," he said. "We really are pleased how that has caught on."
While most schools are still planning how to integrate census activities into curriculums, a few schools' efforts are well on the way.
Census representatives recently kicked off a set of activities at Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, which was targeted because it has such a high share of families with low incomes and limited English skills--populations that typically are undercounted. The officials explained to students why the census is important, how their community loses out on money if their families don't participate and how the information on individual households is not shared with other parts of the government.
At an assembly at the Prince George's County school, eighth-graders played a game of "Family Feud," moderated by a census representative. Instead of instructions such as "name a popular wedding gift," the students were told to "name a reason people do not complete the census."
The whole student body completed a mock census as if they lived at Buck Lodge, answering questions about race and ethnicity, age, household size and residency. "The whole idea of the project"--which is being conducted at several other schools as well--"is to teach them the inner workings at a very elementary level," said Robin Adams, a community partnership specialist for the census.
The students who served as census enumerators at Buck Lodge learned firsthand about the complications of that job--for example, communicating with people who don't speak English or having to go back again and again to a class if a teacher was busy. "They understood how hard it is to get everyone to fill out all the information," said math teacher Tracey McCormack, who is coordinating the school's census activities.
Posters in Buck Lodge's hallways announce "It's important to be counted" and "The Census is coming!" McCormack said the enthusiasm is sinking in. Some students plan to fill out the census forms for their families; some want to volunteer at community information sessions; some jotted down the local census phone number in case their relatives want to sign on as enumerators.
"They are so much more aware that there is a census, and what it does," McCormack said, "so it's definitely having the intended result."
Staff writers Nancy Trejos and D'Vera Cohn contributed to this report.