Like many students her age, Sheena Baylor, 17, didn't care much about this year's elections or about politics in general. She and her friends rarely discussed the subject.
But this fall, the senior at H.D. Woodson Senior High School in Northeast Washington has taken a weekly class aimed at convincing her and her peers that elections matter. The class studied this year's mayoral campaign, assembled a list of issues they considered important and posed questions to the candidates, either in person or by e-mail.
Baylor said she no longer considers it useless to follow politics.
"We didn't think that it would matter because we pretty much thought that no one would listen," she said. "The program showed us that things don't have to be this way, and that we could be heard."
Baylor was one of 600 students at 21 public, charter and private D.C. high schools who took part in the classes. The program, DC Student Voices, was sponsored locally by George Washington University and was part of a national project that covered 22 cities and was launched by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
The goal was to engage students in civic and political affairs so they would become voters in the future, said Sean Aday, an assistant professor at GWU and the lead organizer of the local program.
"Statistics shows that people who vote in their first election tend to be voters for their lifetime," Aday said.
The lowest voter turnout in the November 2000 elections was among 18- to 24-year-olds, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report, with only 32.3 percent of registered voters in that age group going to the polls.
The D.C. students analyzed media coverage of the mayoral campaign and worked on final projects communicating what they had learned to the wider community.
Some classrooms got visits from mayoral candidates. Incumbent Anthony A. Williams (D), for example, went to Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy. Baylor's class at Woodson met twice with D.C. Statehood Green Party nominee Steve Donkin -- not a long trip for Donkin, a teacher at the school.
On Oct. 16, four of the five candidates answered the high school students' questions at a forum at GWU. Socialist Workers Party candidate Sam Manuel was absent.
This week, students at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in Northwest Washington met with Wilson government teachers Jim Leonard and Yvone Bess to review the topics they had picked for their Youth Issues Agenda.
Affordable housing was at the top of the list, and the dialogue heated up as the students debated the meaning of the word "affordable" and suggested possible solutions, including more public housing and government rent control. School budgeting and public safety also ranked as high priorities.
Many students have continued to question the candidates through the DC Student Voices Web site. A senior at Bell Multicultural High School posted a question asking what they would do to prevent teenage pregnancy. Two juniors at Cesar Chavez asked about proposals to reduce violence in the region. A junior at Eastern Senior High School wanted to know why it was that "during America's most prosperous time in history, economic revitalization occurring in our city didn't effect the city's poorest ward."
Leland Burton, the U.S. government teacher at Woodson in charge of running the project at his school, said some students were annoyed that only the three lesser-known candidates in the race -- Donkin, Manuel and independent Tricia Kinch -- responded to the questions on the Web site.
But Burton said the program on the whole has made students less apathetic.
"Being on this side of the city, students, like their parents, feel they are not real players," he said. "This project allowed them to meet with a candidate. They were able to ask hard questions, and they were happy to get an answer, even if it was only campaign jargon."
Burton said students discussed issues they would not otherwise have talked about.
"One student's remark that there were more posters of Carol Schwartz than of Mayor Williams evolved into a discussion of how difficult it is to have a Republican mayor in a Democratic city, even if the Republican candidate is working harder," he said.
Mathew Ford, 17, a senior at Wilson, said he enjoyed talking about the issues important to his community. "There is so much that can be done -- nicer housing, more recreational centers and more summer jobs for youth, you know, to get them off the street," he said.
Two years from now, Wilson senior Denise Carpenter will be voting for the first time. She said she now knows that she will have to do her homework and research the candidates.
"I will vote for the candidate who I think will promote issues that are important to me and to my community," she said. "I will vote for a real representative, not for a face on a poster."