Students play politics in a civics program

The Baltimore Sun

Bryant Woods fifth-grader Ariel Hill would like to be president some day, and Marty Cifrese, a judge at the school's simulated congressional hearing, thinks she has a chance.

"Ariel, I definitely see you in politics," said Cifrese, Bridges program manager for the county school system, and one of nine judges at Thursday's event.

During the hearings, Ariel answered question after question about the Constitution and the way American government is organized. Though she aspires to the job herself, she does not think presidents should have too much power. She voiced her support for presidential term limits and explained how presidential vetoes can be reversed.

Ariel and her classmates at the Columbia school were flexing their political muscles and learning about government as part of a nationwide project called We the People, started by the Center for Civic Education and funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Howard County started offering the program to students in fifth grade five years ago, said county social studies resource teacher Kimberly Pearre. Each year, more elementary schools take part.

This year, she said, 25 schools are hosting the program, up from 19 last year. She hopes all 39 schools - including Veterans Elementary, which is opening in August - will eventually participate, she said. One appeal of the program is that students of all academic levels can take part, she said.

This year, the hearings were held in May and early June, with Dayton Oaks Elementary School holding the last one Friday.

New schools this year included Bryant Woods, which resumed the program after holding one hearing five years ago, said Principal Sean Martin. "It's been really impressive, the growth the kids have exhibited," he said.

Joanne Howard, the school's fifth-grade team leader, said students have been working on the project for about a month, typically for one or two hours a day, three days a week.

The simulated congressional hearings begin when students are placed in groups and asked to grapple with such questions as "How does the Constitution organize our government?" or "How does the Constitution protect our basic rights?"

Students are encouraged to come up with real-world examples to support their positions.

Ally Tash, 10, for example, discussed smoking as she considered how best to balance individual rights and the common good. She said adults are role models for children, and adults who smoke might encourage kids to try it, which would not benefit the common good.

Ally's mother, Stacey Tash, proudly watching and taking photos, said the issue is important to Ally because many of her relatives smoke.

Kiara Hopkins, 11, worked with four other students on the question of citizen responsibilities. They agreed that voting and participating in government are important.

Kevin Smith, 10, who was in the same group, said he learned, among other things, that Maryland has two senators.

During the hearings, each group comes to the front of the room, sitting at a row of desks. The students take turns reading from a script their answer to their particular question. Then they answer questions from three judges. Finally, the judges comment on what they heard, before switching classrooms and hearing another group of students.

All the students were frequently encouraged to take deep breaths and sip from their water bottles. After it was over, Enam Awuku, 11, said she had been nervous. "I was scared a little bit," she said. "But once I started talking, I felt OK."

Pearre noted that some schools nationwide hold the hearings in their classrooms, with the teacher as judge. Howard County schools make a big deal of the event, she said, with local officials such as Diane Mikulis, the school board chairman, and state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer serving as judges.

Martin said Bryant Woods made a point of including as many students as possible in the hearings. In opening ceremonies, first-graders read the Pledge of Allegiance and fourth-graders sang the "Star-Spangled Banner." The art department also got involved, helping make the tie-dyed red, white and blue T-shirts that participants wore.

Only time will tell whether Ariel or Gabrielle do become president. But as judge Terri Taylor, a captain in the Civil Air Patrol, explained to a different group of students, just taking part in the program will surely make them better citizens.

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