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Vol. 35, No. 3

Civic Education: The need is great, and so is the desire to help

by Clifton Barnes

The public’s need for civic education isn’t new … neither is the desire of lawyers to fulfill that need.

In fact, nearly 30 years ago, then-American Bar Association President Morris Harrell (1982-83), quoting studies about the public’s lack of knowledge, helped create the ABA Division for Public Education and, in doing so, said that one of the greatest threats to the justice system is the lack of public understanding about our system. He quoted studies demonstrating that lack of knowledge. This commitment to civic education was one of the primary initiatives of Harrell’s year as president.

This year, current ABA President Stephen N. Zack has named civic education as one of his primary concerns and initiatives. And, like Harrell, he also quotes studies—one of which indicates that more Americans can name the judges on American Idol than on the U.S. Supreme Court.

What is new now is the increasing commitment to reach every child, and the ability to do so through the Internet, as well as law-related education programs at the state and local levels.

“We’re going to go into every high school in America and teach civics,” Zack says. “We’re going to bring civics back to the workplace, to the dining room table, to the schools.”

Resources to do so are much more plentiful and readily available today than 30 years ago, primarily thanks to the Internet. For example, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor started a website at because of what she calls a dire need for civic education for young people.

The site, which went online in mid-2009, includes interactive educational games, forums, and lesson plans for teachers and volunteer lawyers as well. Justice O’Connor says her goal is for iCivics to be incorporated into as many middle school and high school classrooms as possible as a supplement to existing curricula or as a stand-alone curriculum.

“iCivics will help bring civics and government to life for students,” Justice O’Connor says. “I have seen iCivics work. I have watched students’ faces light up as they learn a new iCivics game, and I have heard from parents whose children don’t want to go to sleep because they are too busy playing.”

O’Connor says that while public schools were founded to teach young people to be citizens, civic education has all but vanished from the curriculum. “As a result, we are failing to impart the skills and knowledge that young people need to be effective citizens and leaders,” she says.

“Ultimately, we will know that our civic education initiatives have an impact when we see citizenship and government taught in more schools, and when we witness a citizenry more informed about democracy and government,” O’Connor continues. “We know that there is a direct correlation between civic knowledge and political participation.”

About 320 classes in 36 states have accounts on the iCivics site. More than 3,660 student accounts and 925 teacher accounts have been set up, and the games have been played more than 1.5 million times. In addition, several state bar law-related education websites have created links to the iCivics site.

Examples of state bar programs

One of those bars is the North Carolina Bar Association, which links to iCivics as one part of a broad array of LRE offerings. The bar hired its first full-time LRE director in 2007. While the NCBA has held LRE events for years, most notably through its Law Day programs, the past year has been a busy one with new projects. A new middle school mock trial tournament just started in 2010, and a publication aimed at teaching North Carolina’s Constitution has recently been completed and made available in hard copy and on the bar’s website.

The North Carolina Constitution Explained took a little more than a year to prepare, with volunteer attorneys and staff planning the 64-page book, writing it, editing it, and filling it with diagrams, photos, and other graphic elements.

LRE Director Diane Wright says it was guidance from teachers that precipitated the document. “There’s virtually nothing on the North Carolina Constitution,” she says. “We sent out a survey to teachers across the state, all grade levels, and asked them to rank what they needed. By far, at every grade level, something like four out of every five teachers listed the North Carolina Constitution as the No. 1 need.

“There was nothing teachable or interesting on the North Carolina Constitution, so they didn’t teach it much.”

The book, which took hundreds of volunteer hours, is written at the 8th- to 10th-grade level and is advertised at workshops, conferences, and a teaching institute and through a regular broadcast e-mail to 1,400 teachers and other interested parties. Those who aren’t reached that way will find out about it through the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s literature. Wright says she expects that more than 100,000 children will be exposed to the book each year.

A broader teaching guide has subsequently been completed and is available online, which holds down costs and makes it immediately available to teachers, who have to prepare students for a statewide civics test. “This is really important because when you look at where kids test the lowest [on the civics test], it’s local and state government,” says Wright, who is a former teacher herself. “I really wish all bars would adopt this as a project because, as they say, all politics is local.”

North Carolina is one of seven states that has a statewide civics test; Georgia is another. The State Bar of Georgia also recently hired full-time staff for LRE. Deborah Craytor, an attorney, was hired as LRE director in 2008 and, as a result, the program has expanded dramatically.

In 2006, the State Bar of Georgia started the Journey Through Justice program, which is a free, interactive, four-hour field trip for students from elementary school through 12th grade. About 2,000 students attended that first bar year. Once full-time staff was in place, the number of students taking part immediately more than doubled. During this 2010-2011 bar year, attendance is expected to reach 10,000. The number of tours has escalated from 50 to 200 during that time span.

The idea for the program came from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who mentioned the possibilities at a dedication of the bar’s headquarters building, which had been purchased from the Federal Reserve. The facility, in Atlanta, includes a dedicated classroom, a fully functional courtroom, and a museum of law.

Students are greeted by a re- enactor who portrays Edith Galt Wilson, President Woodrow Wilson’s second wife. (Wilson practiced law in Atlanta for about a year before beginning graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.) She leads them on a tour of his law office, which has been reproduced in the lobby, complete with his original door, desk, and office furnishings.

Then an experienced attorney makes a presentation to the students in the classroom. “We offer a variety of law lessons correlated to the Georgia Performance Standards, which are the curriculum standards mandated for public schools by the Georgia Department of Education,” Craytor says. “So, we are teaching something in the law lesson that has to be taught anyway.”

After a sack lunch brought from home (the bar supplies the drinks), students head to the courtroom, where they put on a scripted mock trial. They then tour the museum, which includes walls devoted to important issues along with specific Georgia or U.S. trials and a 12-minute video called “Reel Justice,” which is a compilation of 75 clips from movies dealing with lawyers and the legal system.

Craytor takes a modified version of the show on the road to schools, mostly rural and more distant schools that can’t devote the time or expense to visit the bar’s building. She reaches between 400 and 600 students per trip. Local bars and others sometimes help foot the bill for students to make the trip to the bar’s building. For example, a Georgia-based nonprofit group called Justice Served has recently donated $30,000 for schools farther than 100 miles away to send their students to the state bar headquarters in Atlanta.

In Florida, the Justice Teaching program takes its civic education to the schools. Though the program was expanded statewide in 2006, Justice R. Fred Lewis individually started the program in 1998. Justice Lewis was only able to get to about four schools a month. After going to one school in Tallahassee at least once a month throughout one school year to teach students classified as underachievers, he knew he had a program that should go statewide.

“The results were so successful that at the end of the semester, I got a call from the principal telling me that the students really got what I was trying to do,” he says with a laugh. Students even wore white arm bands to protest the bad school cafeteria food, and the principal, impressed by their grasp of how to air complaints in a civil manner, agreed with them; steps were taken to improve it.

In 2005 and 2006, Lewis and a select committee of volunteers put a plan in place to pair a lawyer or judge with every public elementary, middle, and high school in the state. The Florida Bar helped administratively to set up the program, to recruit lawyer volunteers, to provide assistance with training sessions, and to make contacts with schools. The Florida Bar also administers a funding grant for the program of $127,000 from The Florida Bar Foundation.

Not only is there at least one trained volunteer for every public school, but an effort is being made to get into private schools, and Lewis even hopes to expand the effort to adults soon.

Lesson plans for every level are available on the Justice Teaching website ( Lewis says that with no civic education requirements before high school, prior to this program—considering the number of dropouts—some students got no civic education at all.

“We are reaching hundreds of thousands of children with this program every year,” Lewis says, adding that there are 4,500 volunteer lawyers taking part in the program. “We aren’t just doing speeches and war stories. These are good academic materials.”

Lewis says many people told him it couldn’t be done, but that it just takes some determination and commitment. “I’d just like for bar leaders to know that it can be done, and I’ll help them get it started,” he says. “I believe in it so much that I will spend my dime to come. We, as lawyers, have an obligation to society—if we don’t do it, who’s going to do it?”

In Ohio, who does it is a partnership between the Ohio State Bar Association, the Supreme Court of Ohio, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and the ACLU Foundation of Ohio. The partnership’s civic education programs are handled by the Ohio Center for Law- Related Education, which further partners with the education community.

Ohio State Bar Association President Carmen Roberto says that the partnership among the law-related groups is very unusual, and it works well. “Making these resources available to our civics education programming not only provides the necessary funding to keep the programs operating,” Roberto says, “there are tremendous people resources to work with the students and teachers to further the program’s success.”

The OCLRE, founded in 1989, has five full-time staff members and two part-time staffers and is housed at the OSBA offices. The nonprofit started as a continuation of the OSBA’s popular high school mock trial program, which began in 1983. It’s now the second largest high school mock trial program in the country, behind California’s.

About 2,000 lawyers—including team advisers, judge panelists for the various competitions, and those who work on each year’s original case—volunteer each year. In 2010, 347 teams from 189 schools and 54 counties took part in the mock trial program. The project takes nearly a year from case development in June to the championship in March.

A new mock trial program aimed at middle schools is the fastest growing LRE program, says Rick Dove, who has served on the OCLRE board for 16 years.

“We reach thousands of students throughout the state through the mock trials,” Dove says. “But we also have teacher training programs, plus there are other programs directed toward students, such as the national We the People program.”

The culminating activity of We the People is a simulated congressional hearing before judges, and Ohio is one of a few states that holds statewide hearings for elementary (5th grade), middle (8th grade), and high school students.

Many state bars coordinate We the People projects, which are funded by the U.S. Department of Education and provided through the Center for Civic Education, an independent, nonprofit group based in California. Since its inception in 1987, the We the People program has touched more than 28 million students.

What can local bars do? Plenty

But civic education isn’t just for national and statewide groups. Local bars are getting more and more involved in law-related education activities.

Earlier this year, the Baton Rouge (La.) Bar Association started a Junior Partner Academy where once a month, three classes of third graders are mentored by volunteer lawyers through planned programs that include going into law firms, law schools, and courtrooms to learn about our system.

Meanwhile the Philadelphia Bar Association has a program called Advancing Civic Education (ACE) where lawyers and judges go into classrooms to teach civics classes as a supplement to existing curricula. So far, more than 150 volunteer lawyers and judges have taken part in the program, which has touched more than 20 high schools in Philadelphia.

“In contrast to the traditional ‘career day’ approach that epitomizes a lecture style, volunteers report a sense of satisfaction at being able to develop personal relationships with students through interactive lessons,” says Jenimae Almquist, co-chair of the project. “Many volunteers report that students who once ignored their presence or remained quiet became increasingly engaged as the small group activities and critical thinking exercises were presented at successive sessions.”

The program has been so successful that it is being expanded into elementary schools.

The Sarasota (Fla.) County Bar Association has targeted 4th- through 12th-grade students with a “Celebrate Freedom, Celebrate Civics” magazine distributed to more than 40,000 young people. The SCBA wrote content on topics such as citizenship and an explanation of the branches of government and then partnered with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune newspaper and its Newspaper in Education department to publish and distribute the magazine.

Daniel Guarnieri, chair of the Sarasota project, urges local bars not to feel overwhelmed or inhibited in taking on civic education projects, and he recommends building partnerships.

“Although the project took a lot of time to put together, the workload was spread between the bar association, the newspaper, and teacher volunteers from local schools,” Guarnieri says. “The biggest hurdle was getting the volunteers organized, and getting a realistic schedule in place for completion of each aspect of the project. After that, the workload for each individual volunteer was very manageable.”

Projects such as that one serve as a tool to help youth connect their values to civic participation and become the kind of active citizens democracy depends on, says Jan Jung, executive director of the Sarasota County bar.

“Nothing is more important to the future of our county, state, and country,” she says, “than informed young people who understand and care about our government and the legal system.” BL