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Students from five area counties debate the merits of the Electoral College

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Members of the Electoral College cast their ballots yesterday in state capitals across the country, solidifying Donald Trump’s position as the nation’s 45th president. In the Rendell Center for Civics and Civic Engagement’s recent Lenfest Citizenship Challenge, competing students debated the merits of the Electoral College system.

Two elementary classes from the School District of Philadelphia were among 10 finalists in the challenge, which held its final round at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center. Lisa Yau’s 5th-grade class from Kirkbride Elementary School and Joan Carter Williams’ 4th-grade class from E.M. Stanton Elementary School presented their opinions, both arguing that the system should be abolished.

“Little did we know when we came up with this challenge that it would be very topical in light of the most recent election, so this has been a lot of fun. I think it has been a good learning experience,” said Marjorie Rendell, one of the four judges at the event.

The finalists were chosen based on essays covering the topic, written and submitted before the Nov. 8 election. More than 120 schools from across the five-county Philadelphia region participated in the first round of the challenge.

Chestnutwold Elementary School, from the Haverford School District, took home the top prize of $1,000, to be used for educational programs that encourage civic learning. Kirkbride Elementary, McKinley Elementary (Abington School District), and Glenwood Elementary (Rose Tree Media School District) were the three runners-up, each earning $500 for their schools.

“I can just see how [the students’] trajectory with voting and being civically minded will be shifted as a result of their participation here,” said Rebecca Julien, Kirkbride’s principal.

All 10 finalists received civics books for their school library, valued at $250, and a copy of We the Civics Kids classroom curriculum.

The finalists were from Perelman Jewish Day School, Kirkbride Elementary, Merion Elementary (Lower Merion School District), E.M. Stanton Elementary, Chestnutwold Elementary, McKinley Elementary, St. Teresa of Calcutta Education Center, Glenwood Elementary, Buckingham Elementary (Central Bucks School District), and Radnor Elementary (Radnor Township School District). E.M. Stanton was the only 4th-grade class to be chosen.

Williams, the teacher of that class, said, “What an opportunity that our kids had for debate. I am so proud of the way they conducted their research, found out information about how this country works, and then at times they took that information home to their own families and informed their parents.”

Each school prepared a presentation for the judges that expanded the arguments developed in their essays. The judges were Ed Rendell, former Pennsylvania governor; Marjorie Rendell, judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit; David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy; and Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center.

“It was terrific that you took a stand and you took a position," Marjorie Rendell said. "… I think that’s what we as Americans need to do – really think through the issues that face us.”

The Kirkbride class split into six groups, each of which researched one pro and one con about the Electoral College system, which were included in their video.

The class said they were reluctant to propose the change because “amending the Constitution takes a long time and is difficult.”

Ultimately, the students decided the Electoral College system was unsuited for modern times.

The class from E.M. Stanton chose to perform a political talk-show skit in which students explained certain practices that they found unfair under the Electoral College system.

Manny Wright, who portrayed a political analyst on the show, enjoyed his role “because I could correct people.”

The students came up with the idea during their daily journal practice.

“The journal prompt just happened to be ‘if you were the host of a talk show, who would be the first person you would want to interview?’ And so we said, let’s do a political talk show,” said Williams.

Student presentations were followed by a question-and-answer round with the judges. The questions included clarifications concerning the class arguments as well as general knowledge questions about the Electoral College.

Rosen said, “These are not easy questions, and the nature of the challenge is trying to balance what people said and did several hundred years ago with the experience that we’ve had since then. And I think you did a fabulous job trying to make sense of those two.”

“I was so nervous,” said Aiden Jones of E.M. Stanton about this portion of the presentation.

Eight out of the 10 finalists supported abolishing the Electoral College, with many of them considering it unrepresentative of actual voters. Chestnutwold Elementary, the winning school, argued to retain the Electoral College but proposed that states should adopt proportional representation, as Maine and Nebraska have.

Thornburgh said, “There is nothing more exciting than studying history and talking about how it applies in our lives, and you’ve just given us a model of enthusiasm and learning about the U.S. Constitution.”

Students presented in two rounds and took a tour of the National Constitution Center.

All 10 classes gathered in the upstairs atrium for the awards ceremony. Before the winners were announced, the judges told students the competition had been “extraordinarily close.”

Principal Julien said, “It’s not about the money for us. It’s about the opportunity to participate in this competition. For our students, this just represents a culmination of lots of hard work and effort.”

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