Some students at Homestead High School settled in Friday – after a fire alarm interrupted the start of class – to learn about and debate portions of the U.S. Constitution.
The students, mostly juniors, are in Sara Warfield's “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution” class. The semester-long course is a combination of history, civics and law that aims to interest students in the Constitution and issues surrounding the document upon which the U.S. government is based.
It is designed to be interactive, and the 17 students in the class at Homestead will take part in a state competition with 13 other high schools next weekend in Indianapolis. The winner will represent Indiana at a national competition in Washington, D.C.
Homestead is the only Fort Wayne high school that will be represented at the state competition, though Heritage Junior-Senior High School also will compete.
Two local middle schools – Carroll and Woodside – will compete in a separate event.
Last year, North Side High School advanced to the national competition.
Training for the competition includes a grueling regimen of reading, writing papers and responding to pointed questions about government and the Constitution.
Some examples: “What has been the impact of judicial review on American society? What historical events have furthered or hindered the vitality of our democratic political culture? In what ways, ... does our government reflect Aristotle's idea of a “polity?”
The ideas are debated and discussed in class and in twice-a-week practice sessions. Other We the People activities include mock congressional hearings, where students take questions from lawyers and judges.
“I grill them,” said Tom Yoder, a lawyer who coaches the Homestead team. “We did that last night for three hours.”
We the People was established in 1987 and has spread to each state. More than 30 million students and 75,000 educators have taken part, according to the Center for Civic Education, which administers the program. The Indiana Bar Foundation coordinates the program in Indiana, and the Allen County Bar Foundation supports it locally.
In class Friday, students divided into groups to debate questions such as whether the terms of members of Congress should be longer. It's that hands-on, competitive aspect that brought many of the students to the class.
“We have to be ready to support our positions,” said Chengyu Bi, 16, a junior. “We have to develop those skills.”
“It's a much more immersive force of learning,” said Gabrielle Barrido, 16.
Collin Gruver is a former teacher who is now director of civic education programs for the state bar foundation. He said the way the course is taught through action rather than simply reading a textbook makes it successful. Competition also draws interest from students, he said.
“I did We the People for 12 years,” Gruver said, referring to his time as a teacher. “I would regularly have students who were not inclined to be interested in politics or government take an interest in this.”
The interest is apparent at Homestead.
Zak Vanstrom, 17, a senior, said he wants to be a lawyer and hopes to attend the University of Chicago. He said the combination of hands-on learning and competition made choosing to take the course easy.
“You can learn a lot more than in a normal classroom,” Vanstrom said.
The state competition will be Dec. 10-11 at Crowne Plaza, Union Station.