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Doing their homework

Too young to vote but looking ahead, five civic-minded students are putting the Philadelphia mayoral election under a microscope - for all youths.

Peak Johnson listens as Al Taubenberger answers a question about violence in neighborhoods.
Peak Johnson listens as Al Taubenberger answers a question about violence in neighborhoods.Read moreKristen A. Graham /

Peak Johnson isn't old enough to vote yet, but he's pretty clear on why the upcoming mayoral election matters to him.

"My father was shot in the head and killed on Father's Day," Johnson, 17, said matter-of-factly, referring to Edward Thomas Johnson's death in 2000. "It seems like we're talking and talking and nothing's getting done. We've got to change that."

Johnson is a member of a small group with a unique mission: to analyze the mayoral candidates from a youth perspective, and then to let other youth know about their findings. For the past three months, five North Philadelphia students have read up on issues, interviewed city residents, and actually sat down with four of the candidates.

On Thursday, their work will culminate at a youth rally at City Hall, when a youth voter's guide they've written will go out to each of the 1,000 expected rally attendees.

It's heady stuff, said Taniesha Clanton, a member of the group.

"I'm a part of the city, and I'm a part of the school system. I want to know what's going on in my mayoral election," said Clanton, 16, a student at the Charter High School for Architecture and Design.

And she does. Last week, she and others sat at a long table at the Honickman Learning Center in North Philadelphia - the Learning Center and the Philadelphia Mayor's Children's Commission co-sponsor her group - and grilled Republican hopeful Al Taubenberger.

Taubenberger was the final candidate they got a chance to question. Earlier, the youths interviewed Tom Knox, Michael Nutter and Dwight Evans; another Learning Center student had the chance to meet with Chaka Fattah. The group requested a meeting with Bob Brady but were not granted one.

For his part, Taubenberger, the longshot GOP candidate, spent more than an hour with Clanton, Johnson and Denise Perkins. He answered their questions - the group centers its work around school funding, school violence, neighborhood violence, after school programs and economic development - and handed each a business card, inviting phone calls.

What are his thoughts about low income housing, Johnson wanted to know?

Taubenberger said he's for every neighborhood having a mix of housing. "And I think the government should encourage home ownership. Habitat for Humanity does a great job - if I'm in office it'll be more involved than ever," Taubenberger said.

How would he handle the budgetary pressures that go along with running a major city?

"Take a look at your own home budget, what mom and dad work on for your house," said Taubenberger. "If you need to save five percent, let me tell you, you can find that five percent without a change in lifestyle. The city can do the same thing."

Clanton was impressed by Taubenberger.

"I think he'd help fix the violence," she said. "He said he'd do whatever it takes. He seems like he'd follow up on his word."

Although she thought the Republican would make a good mayor, Clanton said Nutter would be her pick.

"He had good answers," said Clanton. "He's got kids in the school system. When he gave answers, I thought, 'This is from a father who's got kids in school.'"

The students were surprised by some things - "Michael Nutter looks older than his pictures," Clanton said - and less than impressed with others.

Attending a candidates' forum on homelessness sponsored by Project HOME - a nonprofit organization that seeks to end homelessness and runs the Honickman Learning Center - the students said it showed them a lot about the candidates they analyzed.

"Chaka Fattah came late, he answered a couple questions and then left," Clanton said. "I was surprised."

Still, participating in the project has turned her from someone who didn't like politics at all into someone who urges her friends to cast ballots.

"I tell them, 'You're the youth of Philadelphia. You need to vote!'" said Clanton.

Johnson, a student at Delaware Valley Charter High School and editor of the Learning Center's newspaper, the North Philly Metropolis, said he's learned a lot from analyzing the election.

"I saw that some politicians will actually give answers, and some will beat around the bush and not answer a question," he said.

Johnson agrees with Clanton – if he could vote, he'd also cast his ballot for Nutter.

"Michael Nutter seems honest," said Johnson. "If he doesn't know the answer to a question, he says so."

Susan Badeau, executive director of the Children's Commission, has watched the students blossom during their time thinking seriously about the mayor's race.

"They all grew from their starting points," Badeau said. "I saw a great deal of development in Taniesha in particular. In the beginning, she could hardly think of a question to ask, and she didn't exude much confidence in asking. But later, she in particular shined. She was really on her game."

Johnson, too, feels like he's expanded his mind. And like he's got a stake in the city's future.

"This is a good way to get my voice heard," said Johnson. "If people listen to us, it would really make a difference."