ROCKVILLE — Many high school students’ after-school activities consist of some sort of sport, club or honor society, but for Rockville High School seniors Anthony Ellis and Nicholas Cropper, their after school event was keeping politicians in line.
One day after the presidential debate featuring nationally known journalist Candy Crowley, student journalists Nicholas, 17, and Anthony, 16, were chosen as student moderators for the Montgomery County Board of Education candidates’ forum. They spent more than two hours firing off questions on topics such as closing achievement gaps, reducing class sizes and combatting childhood obesity in the county Wednesday evening.
Anthony, editor-in-chief of Rockville High School’s newspaper, The Rampage, and Nicholas, integrity chief at The Rampage, were chosen by the paper’s faculty adviser, Jessica Nassau, to moderate the forum because of their leadership positions at the paper.
Nicholas 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,” Nicholas said.
Anthony took on the role to stay informed about his community.
“I really like to be involved on the issues in my community,” Anthony 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 Montgomery County Civic Federation, approached Nassau about identifying students to 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 the Rockville Library and because the school’s newspaper is well known and respected, she said.
Nicholas and Anthony researched the candidates and important issues to prepare for their job as moderators.
“I did some research on the candidates on some of the issues that I thought might have been discussed,” Nicholas said.
Anthony did the same and watched presidential debates for some guidance.
“I’ve actually watched debates from past years: 2008, 2004, 2000 presidential debates,” 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, but they 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,” Anthony 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.”
After that problem was defused, the crowd became a bit rambunctious when an audience-submitted question about the county’s Brickyard Road Soccer Fields project was presented.
The project, which would turn county farm land on Brickyard Road into soccer fields, is under litigation, which prevented incumbents Phil Kauffman, at-large, and Chris Barclay, District 4, from discussing it. They were going 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,” Anthony said.
If he could rewind the moment, Anthony said, he would have had better control of the audience and have them direct their questions and comments to him and Nicholas 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, they still did a good job according to Nassau.
“I think they did a great job,” Nassau said. “They asked their questions in a very professional manner.”
Bienenfeld also felt the two did a good job and will continue to use student moderators for future forums that the Civic Federations sponsors.
“I would encourage other organizations to involve students in their activities,” Bienenfeld said. “It went really well and they did a really great job.”