The thing I love most about the beginning of a school year is getting to know my new students.

The first weeks of my class are all about getting a grasp on my new charges and where they are coming from, while putting myself and my background out to them in an effort to build rapport.

But this is an even-numbered year, so these kids are also getting a full-throttle lesson in politics.

Arrows lead voters to polling booths at Kawananakoa Middle School cafeteria during the primary election day. 13 aug 2016
If we’re ever going to improve on our dismal voter turnout, we’re going to have to raise a generation of citizens who understand local politics. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

I survey my victims about their knowledge of the races and their representatives on the federal, state and city level.

Out of 55 freshmen surveyed, 80 percent knew who was running for president, but the numbers drop off significantly from there.

None of them knew who their state senator or representative was. Two students knew who their County Council member was, and only eight could name at least one person running for mayor.

Reading these results, I became more aware of how empty my precinct seemed when I went to vote in the primary. I did not wait in line and most of the booths were open. I was the youngest person there.

As teachers, we need to open the door to local politics for our students, because, in many ways, their local and state leaders will have greater impact on their immediate lives than the president. The American political system is shaped like a pyramid, with local governments at the bottom acting as the true laboratories of democracy.

The city, as Eric Liu pointed out, has representatives on that level who are supposed to be even more beholden to us than our leaders in Washington. My students have no idea who is directly representing their interests.

At the end of the survey, I asked my students to write three political concerns they had. The overwhelming majority of their responses were local-level concerns, such as streetlights, road conditions and homelessness. There were also a number of state-level issues, namely educational concerns.

But the most frequent response was the Honolulu rail project. More than half of the students wrote that rail was one of their top concerns, and most put it No. 1.

Our local leaders are not 4,800 miles away, they are just down the H-1. We can write them, meet them or picket them and still be home for dinner.

These are very real problems that they face every day and will continue to face throughout their lives. Their issues will not be resolved by Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, but by the next mayor or legislators.

We as educators also need to give them access to this level because it is the area where they can affect the most change.

Their eventual votes will matter more. The votes from our state will not be the deciding factor in almost any presidential election. But local elections can be decided by less than 50 votes in a turnout of a few thousand.

Every year, news outlets bemoan low voter turnout, especially among young voters. We should be combating this by teaching that local issues are way more impactful than the presidential election, at least for the issues that our students care about.

Local elections also represent the best avenue for students to get directly involved with the political process. Our local leaders are not 4,800 miles away. They are just down the H-1. We can write them, meet them or picket them and still be home for dinner.

Many elected officials even visit their district schools, if you ask nice enough.

Thinking farther out, if we truly feel that our students are our future, we need to be preparing them to enter into public offices at the local and state level.

Although they lack the glitz and glamor of the presidential election, it will serve our students better if we guide them to focus more on their local elections. It is up to us to get them involved in the process, and local politics is the best way to start.

Looking back at their survey results, it looks like I have my work cut out for me.

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