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Every candidate on the ballot in the upcoming mayoral race was represented at Olney High School in Philadelphia this past Friday, as students participating in the Philadelphia-based Student Voices project were given the opportunity to grill politicians in person.

Republican Sam Katz and Socialist Workers Party candidate John Staggs were both physically present at the event, while incumbent Democrat John Street was represented by at-large City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown.

"The young people really push [the candidates] on what they say," Student Voices Project Director Phyllis Kaniss said, adding that the students' questions covered a broad range of topics, from support of the public school system and education to the environment and city streets.

"That's the bread and butter of what a city government does, and that's what kids really care about," Kaniss said.

Funded by grants from the Annenberg Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Student Voices Project is an initiative of Penn's Annenberg Public Policy Center. Beginning with 33 public high schools in Philadelphia in 1999, the project -- which aims to increase participating students' media use and political involvement -- has since spread to Los Angeles; San Antonio; New York; Tulsa, Okla.; Newark, N.J.; Detroit and Seattle.

A number of area high schools were involved with this incarnation of the project. Though held at Olney, students at the 26 participating schools had their voices heard through questions submitted to their Olney comrades.

Kaniss commended the high schoolers for their issue-focused questions, but noted that they pulled no punches.

Katz praised the project for sustaining a meaningful discourse about the campaign at a time when many seem apathetic or underinformed.

"You can't be anything but disturbed that so many people don't have a clue about what the issues are in campaigns," Katz said, adding that many "don't read the paper and don't really understand what's going on in their city or country."

A learning experience for all involved, many reporters covering the event met Staggs -- a 56-year-old meatpacker whose Socialist Workers Party affiliated-campaign has gone virtually unnoticed by mainstream media -- for the first time at Olney.

Staggs, whose platform includes raising the minimum wage and supporting independence for Puerto Rico, intrigued the students.

"They certainly... mobbed him afterwards," Kaniss said.

Kaniss added that events like the one at Olney "are often one of the few venues where third party candidates can get some attention."

A "wonderful interlude" from the less substantive dialogue on the campaign offered by the media, the event was a "tremendous success," according to Kaniss.

"We were just exuberant," she said.

So was Katz.

"Student Voices is a very, very outstanding program...," Katz said. "The idea of students following an election -- whether for City Council or for mayor --speaking about and understanding, not only from their own perspectives but from the perspectives of students all over Philadelphia, what should matter to the future of the city of Philadelphia and learning about civics and learning about city government, I think is a very noble and worthwhile thing."

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