COLUMBIA — The students, each toting a black plastic trash bag, fanned out on the grounds of Rock Bridge High School after classes Wednesday to pick up cigarette butts, water bottles, cans and other litter.
There was an atmosphere of camaraderie among the participants of Clean Up Rock Bridge that belied their differing political beliefs.
The Young Socialist Club organized the cleanup with the idea of bringing the school's four political clubs together for a worthy cause.
"Through the event, we want to bring together political ideologies and create a unity that could better us collectively," said Greyson Holliday, co-president of the Young Socialist Club.
Students in that club joined their colleagues in the Young Moderates and Young Democrats clubs for the service project.
With the blessing of the school's administration and custodial staff, roughly 20 students spent an hour sprucing up the school property.
The Young Republicans Club declined an invitation to participate in the cleanup.
Alex Burnam, president of the Young Republicans Club, said his club opted out of the project "because we do not wish to legitimize the Young Socialist Club or any activities it organizes. We believe there is no place for socialism in American society — or Rock Bridge High School for that matter."
Opportunities like this at the high school level allow students to begin shaping their own political views, ideologies and opinions.
"Generally speaking, kids are pretty connected with politics," Chris Fischer, who teaches government at Rock Bridge, said. "Politics play an important role."
While students might not be interested in every facet of political issues, Fischer said, they certainly hold opinions.
In the classroom, Fischer said he notices that students aren't bashful when it comes to critiquing the political perspectives of their peers. He has also noticed that students try to understand those differing views.
"As you get older, you learn to respect someone's point of view and appreciate that," Fischer said.
Political clubs at Rock Bridge allow students to become educated and learn more about their own political ideologies and also those of other political groups. Students have the opportunity to join politically affiliated clubs during high school, but as they near graduation, many also have the opportunity to legally vote.
Fischer said that politics gain importance in students' lives as they reach the voting age of 18.
"Many young people discover who they are politically throughout their teenage years," Burnam said. "And since the voting age is 18, it is very important for high school students to have a place to facilitate their opinions."
Fischer said that high school is an influential time for students to explore their own ideologies.
"High school is the time period where people develop their beliefs about how the economy, government and social issues should work," Michael Hawke, a member of the Young Moderates Club, said.
With the emergence of these beliefs and ideals can come misunderstanding and divide.
Daniel Shapiro, co-president of the Young Socialist Club, said he has noticed some misconceptions about the founding of the Young Socialist Club. The club promotes ideals of democratic socialism and aims to connect with modern-day socialist events. He said he hopes that through education, communication and community outreach, the club can be better understood.
"The Young Socialist Club is setting a precedent with Clean Up Rock Bridge," Shapiro said.
Students like Shapiro, who are passionate about making a difference in the realms of political tension, can help bring people together. With the initiative of Clean Up Rock Bridge, the Young Socialist Club hopes to do just that.
"Maybe other high schools are doing things such as Clean Up Rock Bridge," said Andrew Hutchinson, co-president of the Young Moderates Club. "Any little bit you can do to foster compromise is good in our books."
Through learning and communicating with one another, the students who participated in Wednesday's cleanup said they hope this will create a sense of unity and understanding among the different political clubs at the school.
"We're trying to get people involved in showing them that being interested in politics is also about public service and not necessarily just about the issues," Kate Okker-Edging, co-president of the Young Democrats Club, said. "We want people to know that they can do something about their political beliefs."