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‘We the People’ enters high-needs schools

November 30, 2016
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Beech Grove Middle School student Aaron Richart looks over his highlighted notes for the We the People contest. The school is a part of the James Madison Legacy Project. (IL Photo/Eric Learned)

When the teams of Beech Grove Middle School students recently took their turns answering questions from the judges, they were not just any group vying for the We the People trophy. They represented an effort to expand the civic education curriculum into schools that otherwise might not have the budget to offer the program.

The James Madison Legacy Project, started in 2015 by the Center for Civic Education, enabled Beech Grove to implement We the People courses into the eighth grade. With a $16.8 million grant from the Department of Education, the goal of the nationwide project is to bring the civic and government education program into high-needs schools and to provide teachers with the professional development needed to teach the curriculum.

U.S. history teacher Lacee Hunter was immediately excited by We the People and thought the program would get her students at Beech Grove Middle School interested in civics.

She said the James Madison program gave her the resources she needed to bring the We the People curriculum into the classroom and taught her how to implement the program. She also noted she has seen her students engage with the material and do the work necessary for competition.

The Indiana Bar Foundation, which oversees the We the People program in the state, has supported 26 teachers through the James Madison Project.

Each year, the bar foundation offers a weeklong summer seminar at Indiana University Bloomington to help teachers learn how to implement the civic education curriculum in their classrooms. Using part of its $300,000 annual appropriation from the Indiana General Assembly, the IBF is able to offer the summer institute and the classroom materials at no charge to educators who use the civic education program.

The extra funding from the James Madison project has enabled the bar foundation to expand its offerings to teachers from schools that have many students on free or reduced-price lunches.

“Without the funding, there’s no way these teachers would be able to participate,” said Charles Dunlap, executive director of the Indiana Bar Foundation. “It all boils down to money.”

Steve Bair, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at Beech Grove City Schools, said the funding and support was vital. The school district has many students in poverty but, he said, it has great teachers and families so the students do achieve.

The program fits well into Beech Grove, he said, by not only teaching the students about the Constitution but also building on the skills the educators emphasize in their classrooms.

“It’s critical thinking, it’s problem solving, it’s debating,” Bair said of the We the People curriculum. “All of those high-level skills that we want our students to excel at as they go into the workplace and into their futures.”

At the regional competition, the students responded to questions about presidential power, the Necessary and Proper Clause and the limits of free speech. And they were unfailingly civil as they countered their classmates’ arguments by saying, “I disagree with my colleague.”

With the James Madison project set to continue for another year, Indiana is planning to bring at least an additional 13 teachers into the program.

As part of the project, students and teachers are tested to measure how effectively the We the People program teaches civics and government. Dunlap said the hope is the data will help the Center for Civic Education get more funding to continue the James Madison Legacy Project beyond the initial grant.

Wabash Middle School teacher Zach Wenrich is part of James Madison project. He described the We the People curriculum as a “beautiful program,” making the historic documents from the nation’s birth relevant to today’s students.

However, the real test for the program will come when his students are old enough to vote, Wenrich said. He is waiting to see if the curriculum inspires his classes to exercise their right at the ballot box and to become involved in their communities.

“If you educate the kids about the intricacies of government,” Wenrich said, “hopefully, it sticks with them and lets them know they have a voice.”•

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