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Legal community supports civic education efforts

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After winning the We The People simulated congressional hearing competition in December, one of the largest first-place teams in Indiana in at least seven years will head to Washington, D.C., for the national competition in late April.

While the legal community has historically supported various high school teams from Indiana over the years via donations through sections of the Indiana State Bar Association and by giving their time to coach students, for the first time, individual attorneys can donate funds through the Indiana Bar Foundation's Web site, www.inbf.org, until March 5.

We The People is a civic education program where students study six units: philosophical and historical underpinnings of the Constitution; writing of and debates about the Constitution; Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln through the civil rights movement; modern day functions of the branches of government and federalism; Bill of Rights and civil liberties; and current applications of the units and international relations.

Near the end of the semester-long class, students can participate in the competition of a series of mock congressional hearings. At the hearings, students answer questions from members of the community who volunteer to be judges.

Erin Braun, director of Civic Education and We The People state coordinator at the IBF, said the class of 28 students will need approximately $30,000 to cover their expenses, which include food, hotel, travel, and tours of various national landmarks.

The reason she and others are asking for funding is because the students do a better job if they're more concerned about competing than fundraising, she said.

Teams from Indiana have consistently placed in the top 10 in the country in recent years. In 2009, Indiana's team - represented by Hamilton Southeastern High School students - placed fifth.

Those who support the teams' efforts consider it among the best things they do.

ISBA President Roderick Morgan is involved with the program and said he looks forward to judging the program in Washington, D.C.

"I've judged the competitions at the elementary, middle school, and high school level," he said. "It's one of most refreshing things I've done in my career. It's a chance to see how young people get an understanding of how the Constitution works and how to apply it."

Morgan said the students take their work seriously.

"There's joy and heartache," he said. "If they miss an answer, they're crestfallen."

R. William Jonas, immediate past-president of the ISBA, continues to support the program.

Braun, along with Eric Steele, state coordinator for Project Citizen, and Kyle Burson, We The People program coordinator, said they couldn't thank Jonas enough for his support over the years, which is why he received the William G. Baker Civic Education Award Dec. 13.

That same night, Shortridge High School principal Brandon Cosby received the John J. Patrick Civic Education Award for his work at the Indianapolis Public School system's magnet school for law and public policy. Cosby heavily incorporated the We The People program into that school's curriculum.

Jonas said he was trying to get the program more of a presence in his congressional district because mock trials are already prevalent in South Bend. He's also working with Braun and Burson to convince South Bend schools to take on the program, and would like other cities in the northern part of the state to consider adding We The People to their schools.

Part of why he wants to see the program spread, he said, "is their research tells them that of the alumni of the program, 80 percent of them vote. This makes it clear these kids learn the importance of voting and they're informed voters when they do vote."

He added lawyers in other states spoke with him at the national competition last year about how the ISBA has been able to get attorneys involved and how they could emulate that in their jurisdictions.

The program is also tailored to students of all abilities, not just honors students, and all students who participate in the program have done well, he added.

"Whole classes are involved ... so it's not cherry-picked people who are all over achievers," he said. "They understand at the competitive level the importance of everyone participating. You see the looks in their eyes, and they draw each other into the conversation and discussion with judges. That's terrific stuff. ... It's how we operate successfully as a country if we can get people to do it."

As far as giving money to support the teams, Jonas said he realized that these are tough economic times and that world events such as the earthquake in Haiti have had an impact on how much people might be able to give.

"All I can tell you is having seen the national finals last year and having seen the Indiana team perform, I would tell you for myself it's an easy choice for me to make as opposed to giving to some other charities," he said.

He added the experience of going to Washington, D.C., might be the only chance for some of the students. Additionally, teams that make it to the top 10 get to compete in a hearing room in one of the congressional office buildings, something they wouldn't otherwise get to experience.

"Unfortunately there's no requirement to have civic education taught in schools," Morgan said, "but I would like We The People to be taught in every school in the state, or the country for that matter. There's a lack of education about what it means to be an American and how it affects our public lives. ... I wish we could get this into more schools."

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