Hempfield High government class Project 18 inspires students
Caitlin Zakutney was looking forward to visiting Harrisburg, where her Hempfield Area High School class would get the chance to meet Gov. Ed Rendell.
The senior was not starstruck, however; she was planning to ask the governor tough questions about the state’s support of casino gambling.
“I’ll ask if he’s considered the negatives, not just what’s the best money-wise,” said Zakutney, 18. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I hope something I say influences him.”
Zakutney was one of 30 Hempfield seniors who traveled to Harrisburg last week, where they met state leaders and sat in on sessions of the House and Senate.
The trip is part of Project 18, a class that teaches students about local and state government. Political involvement is a class requirement, and many of the students were preparing to grill Rendell and other elected officials on the issues.
Originally a statewide initiative, Project 18 was proposed after the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1971. The class, once taught at a handful of other schools throughout the state, began at Hempfield in 1974, said founding teacher Richard Redmerski.
“It kept growing over the years,” he said. “It became an institution. If you talk to local officials, they all know about it. There have been some (local) elections where people say students have made a difference, and that’s huge.”
Redmerski, who left teaching in 2004 to work for state senator Allen Kukovich, is developing the Project 18 curriculum for the Pennsylvania Coalition for Representative Democracy, a group that promotes civics education.
In Hempfield, the Project 18 class has produced not only informed citizens but future politicians.
Pennsylvania Rep. Karen Beyer, R-Allentown, a 1980 Hempfield graduate who took Project 18 with Redmerski, described it as “huge” in influencing her career.
“I think it has a lot to do with why I’m sitting in the seat I’m sitting in now,” she said. “It inspired public service in me. The meaning of ‘every vote counts’ — I understood that at 17. That was 30 years ago that I was in this class. I’ve never forgotten it.”
Neil Sullenberger, a 2008 Hempfield graduate and former Project 18 student, was inspired to run for the school board by last year’s Harrisburg trip.
“I decided to run basically as a result of Project 18,” said the Washington & Jefferson College freshman. “I definitely think it’s the most valuable class at Hempfield.”
Sullenberger, who said he hoped to bring a student’s perspective to the board, was counting on current and former Project 18 students to canvass the district and promote his platform.
Stephen Michal, a fellow 2008 graduate, is one of those volunteers. A graphic design major at Waynesburg University, Michal designed campaign literature and signs for Sullenberger.
“I’m finding, especially with this campaign, it’s really not difficult to get involved,” he said. “I think Project 18 helped me become more aware. It should be implemented in other high schools.”
Sullenberger and other local politicians turned out April 25 for a golf outing held by current Project 18 students to raise money for their Harrisburg trip. For the candidates, it was a chance to meet voters like Aaron Krunszyinsky, 18, who was still making up his mind about the municipal elections.
“If I wasn’t in this class, I wouldn’t have known any of these people,” said Krunszyinsky. “But now, having heard them speak, I can make a good decision in the voting booth.”
Ken Stough, who began teaching Project 18 this year, said politicians clamored for a chance to speak to his class. This year, the students have heard from candidates for Congress, the state House and Senate, school board and judge.
Though aware that they could face tough questioning from students in the “press conferences” that are part of Project 18, the politicians saw it as an opportunity to reach likely voters and potential campaign volunteers.
“You drive down the road and the kids know the people on these signs,” Stough said. “They understand the main philosophical differences between the candidates, and they got it from the candidates themselves.”