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Fruitvale Elementary School student Karla Verde (left) talks with her classmate Briana Vinnerman about the primary elections during recess on Monday. (Aric Crabb/The Oakland Tribune)
OAKLAND -- Kareem Weaver was enjoying a nice dinner with his wife Thursday evening when the phone started ringing.

First it was Islam. She wanted to know if Weaver — her fifth-grade teacher — was watching Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton face off in another debate. She also wanted to confirm that John Edwards really had dropped out of the race, because he wasn't on the stage with the other candidates.

Others called throughout the evening, with similar questions and observations.

Weaver might have been annoyed by the interruptions if they weren't so inspiring, he said.

When are the children "so interested they're calling you up late at night to get you to tune into CNN?" he said.

For a teacher, he added, there's nothing like it.

Civics might be suffering from neglect in other classrooms across the country, but not so in Room 22 at Fruitvale Elementary School. Weaver's fifth-grade students know all about the branches of government and the Bill of Rights. And in the last two weeks, they have steeped themselves in knowledge about the ever-narrowing field of Republicans and Democrats who want to become their next president.

After researching the candidates' positions on taxes, health care, immigration and abortion, the children picked their favorites. On Monday at lunch, they took to the yard, passing out index cards and flyers outlining the candidates' stances — sometimes accurately, sometimes not — in anticipation of today's primary.


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Today, the class plans to conduct an exit poll at the school, which is also a voting station. Paula Garcia, 10, is the president of her classroom, and she takes seriously the notions of leadership and responsibility. By Friday, she had settled on her choice for the nation's president: Obama, who is in a tight race with Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

"He would raise taxes for theneedy," Garcia said.

Keith Williams Jr., on the other hand, shakes his head whenever one of his classmates mentions universal health care or abortion rights. Williams is a John McCain man.

The 10-year-old's conservative stances on taxes ("I think that if you work for your money, you should keep your money"), immigration and abortion made him lean, initially, to Republican hopefuls Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. But Williams said he had such great respect for McCain, because of his service in Vietnam, that he chose him.

Weaver said he was proud that Williams, who is African American, didn't feel compelled to support Obama just because the candidate is so popular with his peers, or because they are of the same race.

At 10 or 11, Weaver said, "They're unencumbered by prejudice. They're unencumbered by stereotypes. They just stick to the issues." And they love to debate them.

On Friday afternoon, Williams touched a nerve when he declared he was against publicly subsidized health care. Simone Brown, a 10-year-old girl wearing a bright pink sweat shirt, raised her hand.

"I have a question for Keith," she said, a slight edge to her calm voice. "What happens if you're that person who needs health care?"

"Even if I get hurt, it shouldn't be everybody else's concern," Williams said. It would be up to his family to support him, he added.

Another hand went up. "What if your family doesn't have the resources?"

Weaver interjected.

That very debate, he explained, cuts to the heart of a major ideological difference between the two political parties: Is health care a matter of personal responsibility, or a collective burden? Should it be a local concern, or a federal one? Weaver noted that many people demand the rights afforded to Americans without accepting the duties that come with citizenship. One of those responsibilities, he told the class, is to educate themselves and those around them — even if they can't yet vote for another eight years.