By Vivian Collins
Lower Merion High
As the country has become more politicized, so have its high school hallways. Teenagers have become more engaged in national politics, finding ways to advocate for their political beliefs from the comfort of a classroom.
Students at Lower Merion High School, in Ardmore, have formed two clubs on separate ends of the political spectrum: the High School Democrats of America LM Chapter (HSDA) and the LM Conservatives. The HSDA was formed at the beginning of the 2021 school year, followed a few months later by LM Conservatives. Both clubs came about because students wanted to be more involved in creating political change.
“We wanted to create some sort of way that people can, even if they can’t vote, or even if they can, still have their voice heard within American politics,” said Noah Barkan, an officer of the HSDA, “Which in my mind influences high school students just as much [as adults] in a lot of aspects.”
In a highly politicized year, the two clubs demonstrate how student political engagement is growing and while both clubs may focus on different issues and have different perspectives, members have increasingly found themselves working together. It’s a sign of how people can have polarized beliefs but with a shared experience like high school, still find ways to get along – or even collaborate.
Since his freshman year, senior and cofounder of the LM Conservatives, Jack Shapiro, had been looking for a place to find other like-minded students. But he found starting the club difficult.
“The few conservatives I knew were basically unwilling to show their faces,” Shapiro said, “They did not want to face the social stigma that accompanies being conservative in the school.”
Most students at Lower Merion have Democratic leaning beliefs, making conservatism unpopular. But things finally fell into place when Shapiro was approached by his soon-to-be co-founder and fellow senior, Henry Bard, who was also interested in starting the club. Part of the club’s mission is to welcome other students into their meetings and change assumptions about conservatives in the very Democratic Lower Merion.
“We created the club to create a comfortable environment where people felt that they could come and share their beliefs,” Bard said. But despite the welcoming message, some students still feel unsure of voicing their thoughts. Shapiro’s well known for being a highly involved young Republican but he recognizes the difficulty, saying, “[members of the club] face a lot of unmerited prejudice at this school, and it’s a very challenging experience, which is why most conservatives are firmly closeted about their views.”
Although the club is fairly new, members of the LM Conservatives already have plans to start sending out a monthly newsletter to the student body consisting of conservative articles. Pennsylvania Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick will be coming to LM to speak to club members. Fitzpatrick represents Pennsylvania’s first congressional district and was ranked by Georgetown’s Lugar Center as the number one most bipartisan member of Congress in 2019. According to Shapiro, “He really emphasizes the brand of conservatism that we strive for.”
The HSDA also has a busy spring planned, including bringing in local environmental speakers and activists for a Lower Merion Environmental Forum. The forum was organized with the goal of educating high school students on how they can help address climate change. The HSDA will organize volunteering opportunities at Planned Parenthood. They also have a Get Out the Vote committee which is focusing on voter engagement and registration. While the HSDA isn’t going to endorse specific candidates, according to Barkan, they plan to, “Stay centralized on spreading information and just giving true, fair, accurate information about the candidates, their policies, and letting people make their own informed decisions [based] on that.”
Lower Merion isn’t the only place where teenagers are becoming more involved in politics. Youth voter turnout increased in a big way in 2020. An estimated 50% of voters aged 18 to 29 voted, an 11-point increase from 2016, according to Tufts University’s Circle Center, which analyzes young voter engagement. But youth turnout tends to drop in years without a presidential election.
That’s one reason both clubs have teamed up to collaborate on a voter registration drive ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. With opposing views on most political issues, one might assume that the student-led clubs have difficulty getting along and that tensions are rising in the hallways. But the members of both clubs are very willing to work together. “We would just like to show that voter registration is really important, regardless of your political affiliation,” Senior and HSDA officer, Rissa Howard, said. Shapiro also said he’s eager for the clubs to work together: “Absolutely. We look forward to collaboration.”