The desperate state of civics education in American schools is well documented. Fewer than half of U.S. eighth graders know the purpose of the Bill of Rights, according to a New York Times article reporting on the most recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The 2010 NAEP also showed that 75 percent of high school students who took the test couldn’t identify the impact of U.S. foreign policy on other nations or name a power granted to Congress by the Constitution.
“The results confirm an alarming and continuing trend that civics in America is in decline,” Charles Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civics Education, said in the May 2011 Times article. “During the past decade or so, educational policy and practice appear to have focused more and more upon developing the worker at the expense of developing the citizen.”
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said in the article that civics education in America is in crisis. “We face difficult challenges at home and abroad. Meanwhile, divisive rhetoric and a culture of sound bites threaten to drown out rational dialogue and debate. We cannot afford to continue to neglect the preparation of future generations for active and informed citizenship,” she said.
Determined to reverse the trend, Justice O’Connor in 2009 initiated the iCivics program, which teaches civics to students through web-based games and other tools and provides free educational materials to teachers. Since its inception, iCivics has created 16 educational video games and is now being used in classrooms in all 50 states.
The movement to reverse the decline of civics education is alive and well in Oregon, too. Hundreds of attorneys, judges and other legal professionals from throughout the state dedicate countless hours to ensure that Oregon students learn about the nation’s guiding documents and principles, the three branches of government and more through educational and innovative programs and activities. These civics champions — who rarely seek the spotlight for donating their time, energy and expertise — positively shine when they talk about the rewards of being involved.
Beyond the Classroom
Among the most widespread efforts and perhaps most widely known in Oregon is the Classroom Law Project. Based in Portland, the CLP has reached about 400 teachers and 12,000 students since its inception in 1983. The nonprofit organization concedes that there is much work to be done, however. It reaches just a small percentage of the state’s students, and the CLP found in a 2006 Civics Survey that Oregon’s lack of civic awareness mirrored the national trend. Back then, just 25 percent of high school students could name Oregon’s two U.S. senators and 23 percent thought Ted Kulongoski, then governor, was one of them.
CLP’s goal is to bring the education, legal and business communities together by providing innovative, timely, practical and fun civics education programs to students ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade. Its programs include courthouse tours, Law Day, its annual mock trial and We the People competitions for high school students, Project Citizen, and Youth Summits. We the People is a national competition that tests high school students on their knowledge of the Constitution, congressional-hearing style. Oregon teams have won the national title three times and have won awards every year since the program was established more than two decades ago. CLP carries out these programs, thanks to the steadfast dedication of a cadre of legal volunteer coaches and teachers.
CLP’s educational programs extend to educators themselves as well. Its annual Oregon Civics Conference for Teachers, held in the state Capitol, draws teachers, curriculum specialists and administrators from across the state to attend workshops led by representatives from all three branches of government. Through the program they receive resources, formal training and classroom coaching. Other CLP programs give teachers a chance to hone their civics skills through professional development training and private consultations.
The Street Law program at Lewis & Clark Law School, created by CLP, gives law students a chance to teach local high school students about how the law applies to people’s everyday lives. The law students teach in the high school classrooms twice a week in cooperation with a teacher, and attend weekly two-hour seminars to improve their teaching skills. Subject areas include introduction to law, criminal, juvenile and constitutional rights in the fall, and torts, consumer, family and housing law in the spring. The law students incorporate role plays, group discussions, case studies and mock trials to teach the material.
Marilyn Cover, CLP’s executive director, says 400 to 500 attorneys volunteer for the organization’s array of programs, and judges from throughout the state play a key role in the programs’ success as well.
“There’s no way in a million years we could ever do this without the volunteers who carry out the programs and the CLP board members,” Cover says. “I feel so blessed that the day I arrived in Portland and began talking to people about doing mock trial and setting up the Street Law program, there was already a predisposition of, ‘Of course we’re going to help out!’ ”
“From the very beginning the Oregon State Bar has been such a strong partner, as have all of the lawyers in the state who have an interest in volunteering,” she adds. “Other nonprofits with similar programs just don’t have the benefit of that that we enjoy.”
While it’s impossible to mention by name all of the attorneys, judges and other legal professionals who are champions of civics education in Oregon, the Bulletin did want to salute their contributions overall by asking a few to share why they step up to play a much-needed role in improving students’ understanding of why civics is important to everyone.
More than 500 alumni-lawyers have engaged with 7,200 students through the Street Law program. Among the former law students who remain involved as board members are Dan Larsen and Jaye Taylor. Both said the Street Law program forever changed their perspectives.
Larson, a partner in Ater Wynne’s litigation group, joined Street Law in 1983 because he had heard positive reviews from fellow students. He taught at Southeast Portland’s Centennial High School and said the experience was frightening and exhilarating at the same time.
“Not only is it exciting to work with the students, but it also helped me grow as a person to realize the value and the importance of being civically minded as early as it is meaningful to you,” Larson says. “We’re so fortunate in this country with all of the rights and liberties that we have. It’s really important for young people to learn those issues and those rights as early as the corresponding responsibilities that go with them and how important it is to be part of that process.”
Larson, who also has served as a volunteer judge for the mock trial and We the People competitions, says he has seen the value of CLP programs for a variety of students and particularly those who are underprivileged.
“It’s just an amazing transformation when you see how hard these students prepare for these activities and how much more articulate they become when they express these ideas and concepts,” he says.
Taylor, a shareholder at Buckley Law, participated in Street Law in 1993 because she wanted some practical experience and was looking to enhance her public speaking skills. Since she enjoys being around kids, Street Law was a natural fit. Taylor says her time at Roosevelt and Wilson high schools, both in Portland, was a learning experience for her as well.
“Street Law was fabulous for me because it gave me an opportunity to really understand how little young people knew then and know now about our government and our laws,” she says. “They really don’t understand why we have the laws we have or how any of it works. They are empowered by learning those things. So Street Law was a real eye-opener about how our culture is changing from generation to generation.”
For example, Taylor had 17 juniors in one class and four of them had children in a daycare center housed in the school. She asked them to give her an example of how society’s attitudes had changed and, in turn, resulted in a change in the law. Taylor says she expected references to the civil rights or women’s rights movements.
“The vast majority said in a written quiz that you don’t have to be married anymore to have a baby,” she says. “The follow-up question was, ‘What is the role of a father in a child’s life?’ and they all said it was to pay child support.”
Taylor says the exercise ignited a critical discussion about other things that are important in a child’s life, but clearly illustrated a major shift in generational attitudes.
The Mock Trial Ripple Effect
As a mock trial regional coordinator, judge and coach, Taylor has seen that program’s impacts as well.
“For many kids, that was their first time in a jacket and tie, and their first time to be in a courtroom without having been arrested,” she notes. “It’s exciting to see kids who have never considered themselves in a professional role be involved in a program that can help them change their whole view of themselves, plus the specific education they get out of it.”
The benefits of the mock trial program hit close to home for Taylor personally as well. She raised a foster son who attended Jefferson High School and joined its mock trial team. He became the first foster child in Portland to go on to a four-year university (the University of Oregon) and then went to law school at the University of Southern California.
Bend attorney Bruce White has helped coordinate the regional mock trial competition in Central Oregon for the last two decades, and says the program not only exposes students to the courthouse and the daily workings of the legal system but also promotes crucial life skills.
“I think an exercise like this helps your critical thinking skills, whether it’s debate or mock trial. Certainly, in preparing a mock trial case, better teams will always use the ambiguities in the materials to their advantage. It really requires them to be analytical,” he says.
“The whole role-playing aspect of it makes it an interesting exercise as well,” White adds. “For those who are perhaps interested in acting, for example, they see what it’s like to play a role and do it well. There’s room for different kinds of skill sets in any particular team’s presentation.”
White, who coordinates the competitions with Bend trial attorney Angela Lee and Deschutes County Circuit Court Judge Michael Sullivan, has seen the program grow over the last two decades. Among the personal rewards is the chance to give back, he says.
“As lawyers, we’re given a unique role by the legal system and I think it’s important for lawyers to give back to others in the community. It’s an opportunity to show students what the legal system is like and expose them to a realistic court case and perhaps get them interested in a legal career,” he says. “Even if they’re not interested in a legal career, it’s certainly a great exercise in exposing them to the legal system and an exercise in critical thinking and performance.”
Attorney Kelly Noor, with Garrett Hemann Robertson, began coaching the mock trial team at West Salem High School in 2005 when a friend’s daughter joined the team. The teacher had a large group of students who wanted to participate, but few attorneys to coach. Noor has been impressed by the program’s impacts.
“What I really enjoy seeing is the development of students overall. Not just the knowledge base, but to gain the skills that come with advocacy,” she says. “These students gain the skills to stand up in a courtroom and present before a judge, which is an experience not many practitioners get to have.”
Noor says she also appreciates the permanent bonds that develop through the program.
“I see a huge number of students years later, and not many have gone to law school but they’ve stayed connected to the program and have come back to volunteer for it,” she says.
Not every school can support its own mock trial team, as was the case in the Salem-Keizer area. The Salem-Keizer Coalition for Equality asked Oregon Supreme Court Justice Paul De Muniz to judge a debate designed to help local Latino youth develop their public speaking and advocacy skills. De Muniz then combined forces with retired Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin Peterson to establish a mock trial team of 20 students from high schools throughout the district.
The justices held a parent orientation meeting at the Oregon Supreme Court, and the team and its six coaches held their first practice in October. On Dec. 14, the team will enter its first practice competition at the Multnomah County Courthouse.
“We had great parent participation at our orientation meeting, and it was a very uplifting and inspiring evening,” De Muniz says. “Some of these young people are very articulate already and it’s really admirable.”
Programs Give Students Their Day in Court
Along with CLP’s courthouse tour program, Oregon Women Lawyers and the Multnomah County bench ensure that elementary school students have an opportunity to tour the Multnomah County Courthouse and witness mock trials. OWLs and the bench organize a large tour on Take Your Child to Work Day each April, and more than 5,000 students from throughout the state have toured the courthouse through CLP’s efforts.
“The judges make time to visit with the students if possible, so we have this amazing support from lawyers and judges who see the value of not only altruism but how it works from the front end,” CLP’s Cover says.
Introducing children to the courthouse in a way that is friendly and welcoming is one of the key goals of a series of civics videos created by the Multnomah Bar Foundation. Dubbed its Signature Project, four videos have already been filmed and are broadcast on community access television, distributed to schools and civics organizations, and produced with funds raised by the foundation.
The videos, which feature titles such as “http://www.youtube.com/embed/videoseries?list=PL89B2424853031132&hl=en_US,” “http://www.youtube.com/embed/videoseries?list=PLB8F92A44C3604CE1&hl=en_US&rel=0&vq=hd720” and “http://www.youtube.com/user/themultnomahbar?feature=CAwQwRs%3D 101,” are on YouTube and are linked to the foundation’s website. Multnomah Bar Association members like Jim Westwood, a partner at Stoel Rives and chair of the Signature Project Committee, even star in the videos.
“It was great fun,” says Westwood, who played a nutty professor, complete with mussed hair and a bowtie, in his video on the court system. “I think civics education is just vital. People get to vote whether they are educated or not, so it’s better to make sure they are educated about what voting is all about.”
The video series recently was honored by the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors. Chuck Tauman, a Portland attorney and the foundation’s director, says the video series and other foundation activities also help raise awareness about how attorneys contribute to their communities.
“There are so many misperceptions and inaccuracies about the role of lawyers in our society, so we’re very interested in broadening the public acceptance and perception of lawyers in general and the Multnomah Bar Foundation specifically,” Tauman says. “These programs are brought to the public through the generosity of lawyers in their community.”
The reach and impact of Oregon’s civics champions spread well beyond the classroom and will continue to benefit the state’s youth well into adulthood, when maybe they will volunteer to serve as civics champions in their own right.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2012 Melody Finnemore