COLUMBIA — As you entered the media center at Oakland Junior High School on Thursday afternoon, you were handed a ballot. But it wasn't to vote on candidates.
It was to select the students who gave the best overall presentation, best information, best question and answer and best display at the school's political convention.
To prepare, ninth-graders in honors English and government were assigned a candidate to represent from the local, state or national level. The project was overseen by Oakland teacher Josh Johnson.
The 59 students researched the candidate's life, political career and stance on issues in order to write a speech, create pamphlets and fliers and post information on poster boards. Community members and parents were able to visit the convention and ask the students questions from 1 to 4 p.m.
"I think it is a great way for kids our age to get involved in politics," said Rich Dao, 14, who represented Mitch Richards, Republican nominee for the 47th District seat in the Missouri House. "It gives us a path to become active citizens."
As people circled around to visit the candidate booths, the student representatives took turns giving speeches behind a lectern.
Vy Le, 14, looked down at her notes and firmly held the mic as she spoke about her candidate, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
"Romney understands the importance of the American dream and family values," Vy told the crowd. "He has a solution, and we need to accept his plan."
After Vy, Adele Dorman, 14, spoke on behalf of President Barack Obama. Over the noise of the people talking at the booths, she talked about Obama's call for improving STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — programs in schools.
Vy and her partner, Alexandria Sieckmann, won for best overall presentation. Adele and her partner, Martana Stemmons, won for best question and answer.
Samantha York was among the parents who attended the convention. Her daughter, Shana York, represented Democrat Mary Still, a 25th District state representative vying to unseat Republican Kurt Schaefer for the 19th District Senateseat.
"I learned a lot of stuff that I can't get from their ads," Samantha York said. "I get to learn their views and perspectives. It's much easier to get it this way."
Columbia School Board member Jan Mees thought the students were effective at providing "short facts that will help people make good decisions without a spin."
As part of their assignment, the Oakland students were asked to keep their presentation unbiased. However, being unbiased about controversial topics such as abortion presented opportunities for reflection for students.
"(Kurt Schaefer) is pro-life, but he's not extremely conservative," said Sloane Scott, 14, who represented Schaefer.
Asked who she considered extreme, Sloane responded, "Todd Akin."
Akin's conservatism was a challenge for Alex Shaffer, 15, who was one of the students representing Akin, a Republican congressman running against incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill for her seat.
"My mom came up to me and asked about the rape comment," Alex said as he staffed the Akin booth.
Shelia Shaffer explained she wanted to see what her son knew about the controversy.
"Some of my questions were answered, but they needed help from (Akins') representative, who gave a child-friendly response," Shaffer said.
Kjia Underwood, 14, saw the convention as a way for young voters to get more involved in important political decisions.
"I think the problem with young voters is they don't care about influencing their nation, but they can be the most influential," Kjia said. "The choices that they make will affect the rest of their life."
Samantha Myers, Alycia Solomon and Caitlin Ethridge, who represented Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon won for best display, and Alyssa Hawkins, who represented Teresa Hensely, the Democratic candidate for District 3 U.S. representative, won for best information.
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.