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Rule the School: How to run for president—and win the election [Girls' Life magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Girls’ Life magazine
October / November 1996

Certain things at school drive you nuts. There’s not enough funding for the drama department to put on one decent show; the cafeteria chow is nasty-, and you’d swear the last new book the library bought was Gone With the Wind. Why isn’t anyone doing anything? If you were class president, you wouldn’t sit still, letting things slide. You’d show some initiative, solve the problems.

If you get elected, you can use your title to be the voice of the people, to make things better.

“I wanted to give back to my class,” says 13-year-old Diana, who was voted class president last year. “The issue I focused on was getting computers. I rallied kids together, started a petition and took it to the school board. And we won-they’re finally going to get some computers.”

Diana is not the only girl who’s speaking up. Now more than ever, girls are running for office, says Lyn Fiscus, editor of Leadership, a publication produced by the National Association of Student Councils. “About two girls for every one boy, are taking on leadership roles. It used to be that boys would get elected and girls would work on committees and do all the hard work. “

An added bonus is the instant connection you have to other students. Running for office means putting the effort into meeting and listening to other students. It’s a great opportunity to introduce yourself to everyone and make your face known. When else can you go up to a stranger and say, “Hi, I’m so-and-so,” without feeling like a dork?

Krishanna Coleman, a fifth-grader at John Adams Elementary School in Alexandria, V-a., vouches for the popularity factor. Last year, her school elected her class president, and she loves it “that everyone [in school] knows my name. When they see me, they act like I’m famous or something.”

While it’s fun to be a school celeb, this is not the reason you should pick to run. Besides, you won’t remain popular for long if you don’t accomplish what you promised.

Being president means students will count on you to use your clout for making changes. Kids might want to talk about getting new desks, more basketballs, forming a new club-anything under the sun. You’re the person who can help make it happen. Of course, this can be a hassle if you’re pestered 24 hours a day about getting a candy machine. But for the most part, nothing beats the access you’ll have to so many different teachers and students.

Making the Commitment

Eager to get going? That’s a good sign. If you decide to go for it, you’ll need all the commitment you can muster.

There are some hard questions you must be able to answer before running. First, make sure you understand what is required of the office and what kinds of personal sacrifices you may need to make in terms of your time and talent. If it comes down to a pool party invite or student council meeting, the meeting takes it every, time. As for other activities, like sports or being the lead in Grease, you may have to pass them tip. It’s best to try to do one thing well instead of doling out your energy to a bunch of activities.

It also helps to have the support of your parents. Fulfilling your presidential duties means spending more time away from home. In other words, plan to get your little brother to add some chores to his list so you can attend a fund-raiser or meeting.

Running for office also requires a thick skin and determination. Will you be able to deal when students say you’re not doing, enough or complain that you’re blowing the school budget?

Says U.S. Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey of Northern California, “There arc going to be tough times when you feel unsure about yourself, but you have got to set goals and stick to them. Stand firm everyday for what you believe in, and never let anyone tell you that you can’t make a difference. You can!”

Welcome to the Campaign Trail

OK—you’re going to do it, and your family and friends are behind you. Good deal! Now it’s time to decide what your campaign will be about. If you want people to vote for you, you might give them reasons.

Those reasons make up your campaign platform. It’s not enough to promise “awesome changes.” You have to point out specific issues you’ll tackle. Pick things you know are important and possible to achieve. Raising money for after-school activities is perfect. Getting a heated pool is not. If you choose unrealistic goals, students will be bummed when you don’t pull through. If you’re not sure what platform to choose, talk to other students. They’ll have a gazillion ideas, and you can address the ones which seem most pressing and do-able.

Got your platform? Now it’s slogan time. The slogan is a catch phrase that helps people remember your name. It should be short and snappy, and rhymes don’t hurt. Amy Lunn, a fifth-grader in Connecticut, came up with this: “Amy Lunn. She’ll get things done!” Krishanna went with, “Vote Krishanna with Honor.” Write a list of possibilities on paper until you hit the right one.

Next, print your slogan on small cards you and your buds can distribute. This brings us to the most crucial part of campaigning: Make your face known. Introduce yourself to anyone who’ll listen. Get out there before your opponent beats you to it. Smile, and say something friendly and to the point, such as, “Hi, I’m Anna. I’m running for class president and I just want to introduce myself” Make good eye contact, and firmly shake hands. You may feel dorky the first few times, but physical contact will help them remember who you are.

Posters are also good for keeping your name on everyone’s mind. Buy big, colorful billboards and write your slogan on them in bold letters. Paste your photo on the posters so students can match your face with the name.

Krishanna took things one step further. She printed, “Vote Krishanna with Honor,” on buttons, stickers and bookmarks, and handed them out to the school’s second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. Each time she met someone, Krishanna would give him or her an item. The idea is not to buy people off but to give them a reminder of you.

Suggests Susan Guber, author of How to Win Your First Election, “Keep a sheet of paper with everyone’s name you have met. When it gets close to the election, remind them to vote for you.”

Making a speech

There is one job left—the campaign speech. Here’s your chance to stand in front of the entire student body (gulp!) and sell yourself While this may sound horrifying, it can cinch the vote for you if you play your cards right.

One woman who knows how to do it right is Mary Kate Cary. She was a speech writer for President Bush and now writes speeches for Elizabeth Dole. First, she says, figure out who you’re talking to and what’s important to them.

A good speech has a strong beginning, an interesting middle and an ending that ties it all together. It also tells a story. “The story doesn’t have to be about you,” says Mary Kate. “It can be about a friend or imaginary person, but it has to be a topic the audience can relate to. Using real-life examples makes people more interested in what you are saying.”

Last but not least, stay aware of the time. There is nothing worse than hearing a 30-minute speech when you expected a 10-minute one.

The vote is in

Now comes the hard part … waiting. Stay cool. Do not badger or beg people to vote for you, no matter how nervous you feel. Remind yourself that this determines whether you’re class president. It does not outline your life achievements.

But let’s say the best happens: You’re voted class president! A thousand congrats. You deserve it! After all your hard work, we’re sure you’ll do an excellent job. Just stick to what you promised, listen to students, and do what you can for them and your school.

If you didn’t win, you should still be proud. You ran a good, honest campaign. You took a risk and put yourself on the line. Most students don’t do that much. And don’t forget-unlike the U.S. presidential elections, there’s always next year!

Hope Katz Gibbs was the president of the Class of 1982 at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School in PA. (FYI: She ran for a class office three times, and lost, before landing the big one!)

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.