On Feb. 4, campaign banners and signs turned the school's gymnasium in a swirl of names, slogans, colors and symbols. To get into the spirit of the school's Political Conference and Mock Nominating Convention — a quadrennial tradition that dates back to 1988 — students arrived for the day sporting campaign T-shirts and buttons. One even wore a "Hillary" wig.
Every four years, the school holds such a mock convention for the party out of power in the White House: This year, that meant the Democrats, despite the fact that they control both houses of Congress. Organizers claimed that from Michael Dukakis in 1988, to George W. Bush in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, the students have accurately predicted who the party would nominate.
As of press time, the results of Super Tuesday — a tradition that, ironically, also dates back to 1988 — weren't known. But for the record, students, by a narrow margin — 101 delegate votes — selected U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who dropped out of the race last month, as his vice-presidential running mate.
"We want kids to be excited about the voting process," said Sharon Levin, who coordinates the school's humanities program and oversaw the day's events. She was dressed in what could best be described as an "Uncle Sam"-type outfit covered with buttons going back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. "Kids really remember this day."
For more than a month, students researched candidates and issues, and some got to portray either the candidates or surrogates, like former President Bill Clinton, retired Gen. Wesley Clarke and Nobel Prize laureate Al Gore. Others got to act as delegates, representing all 50 states, plus the U.S. territories, including Guam, Puerto Rico and American Samoa.
(For the sake of realism, delegates from Florida and Michigan weren't recognized at the convention. The national party has promised not to seat delegates from those states at the real convention this summer because the state parties chose to jump ahead of the primary schedule.)
"The students that are into politics really get into it; others not as much," said 18-year-old Miriam Berger, who worked as a convention organizer and spent much of Sunday decorating the room. Berger plans to vote in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary come April, although she hasn't decided on a candidate.
As of Tuesday, it wasn't outside the realm of possibility that the Keystone State primary could actually help determine the outcome.
The earlier part of the day offered students the chance to hear from more than a dozen actual political pros, including U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.); U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-District 8); State Rep. Josh Shapiro (D-District 153), an alum of the school; Montgomery County Commissioners Joe Hoeffel and Jim Matthews; and Democratic Party operative Mark Aronchick.
Specter, who'd been invited by a student, kicked off the day with a speech urging teens to get involved in politics and to learn more about the issues. As he stood beneath a huge donkey poster — the symbol of the Democratic Party — several lonely-looking students held up posters that depicted the GOP elephant.
"I would urge you to take a strong look at what the issues are," Specter told the students.
"We live in a society that respects the rule of law and the electoral process," he added.
Murphy, the other keynote speaker, joked that the audience probably thought he wasn't old enough to be in Congress. A vocal minority cheered when he said that his wife is a Republican. After starting on a light note, the 34-year-old freshman representative delivered a partisan speech that focused on the need to end the war in Iraq.
"We cannot focus our efforts in Afghanistan if we our bogged down refereeing a religious civil war in Iraq," he stated.
Between the keynote speeches, students had the chance to attend smaller breakout sessions with a number of guests. One was headed by Aronchick, a Philadelphia lawyer who wears a number of hats in the Democratic party and is deeply involved in Clinton's presidential campaign.
Aronchick told some tales from the campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire before offering his pitch on why Clinton is better-suited than Obama to lead the country. One student, Joey Mendelson, 18, repeatedly challenged the guest and stood up for Obama.
After the session, Mendelson acknowledged that he hadn't yet made up his mind. He said that he's trying to become a more informed voter, but complained that the candidates "are not focused on the issues anymore — that it's all about personality."
During another session — the only one dedicated to the GOP field — Jim Matthews, a conservative Republican and brother of talk show host Chris Matthews, said that it's true, presidential races often boil down to popularity contests.