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“What are the constitutional issues here?” is a common enough question for first-year law students to hear in class. Yet this time, the question is coming from an unlikely source — law students teaching in Washington, D.C. public schools. This year, seven D.C. public schools — Anacostia Senior High School, Banneker Senior High School, Bell Multicultural High School, Ballou High School, School Without Walls, Wilson Senior High School, and the Oak Hill Juvenile Detention Center — have introduced a new elective course: Constitutional Literacy. Originated by American University Washington College of Law Professor Jamin Raskin and taught by AU law students, the course covers every major Supreme Court case that relates to high school students. The class materials have provided the basis for a book published last month by CQ Press, “We the Students: Supreme Court Cases For and About America’s Students.” Raskin became involved in developing the course after he was asked to represent students who found their local cable television program “Shades of Gray” censored at Montgomery County’s Blair High School. The episode that angered school officials was a debate on gay marriage that featured two conservative and two liberal panelists. School officials said they weren’t going to allow the program to be aired because some of the guests talked heatedly about religion, but these officials did not generally view programs ahead of time, Raskin says. It was clear to him that the show was being censored because of its content, and when the dispute went before the local school board, the board agreed with him. “And I got really interested in the rights of high school students at that point,” he says. Raskin found that the students were fascinated with the law, and with the help of Street Law, a program started at Georgetown University that teaches law to young people, he decided to write a text that would focus on the rights of students. With the creation of the book, Raskin felt a public service component was needed. He created the Marshall-Brennan Fellows Program, which picked 30 AU law students to teach in D.C. schools. The program was named in honor of Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan Jr., who shared a strong commitment to student rights, Raskin says. “At first, everyone said, ‘They’ll never let you into public schools,’” Raskin explains. Yet the schools, he says, encouraged his course, realizing it would help raise students’ civic awareness. School Without Walls, near George Washington University, has made the class a one-year elective as part of its 11th grade American history program, with positive results so far. As class began on a recent routine Thursday afternoon, second-year law student Fahryn Hoffman scrawled 14th Amendment on the blackboard, with the words due process and equal protection beneath it. On this day, in a school with a mix of African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and white students, the class will discuss the case that enables them all to sit in the same classroom: Brown v. The Board of Education. With nearly a year of reading and discussing court cases behind them, the students are relatively well-versed in legal terminology. Because of the stress of impending finals, Hoffman does not lead the discussion today, but has turned the class over to another second-year law student, Riqueza Feaster. It is Feaster who poses the question “What are the constitutional issues here?” “Whether ‘separate but equal’ violates the 14th Amendment,” one student volunteers. Satisfied, Feaster continues with her lesson. “Think of the rationales between the Brown and the Plessy Courts,” she says. “If you don’t have an equal education, what happens?” “You can’t succeed,” another student responds. “You can’t be a responsible citizen,” adds yet another. After the discussion winds around to the intangible factors that work to make segregated education unequal, the class splits off into groups to discuss the differences between de jure and de facto segregation. Hoffman and Feaster have the class of roughly 20 students on Mondays and Thursdays and 14 students for two hours and 15 minutes on Wednesdays. So far, students have gone on a field trip to the Supreme Court, competed for Marshall-Brennan Fellows awards (roughly 70 percent of the writing awards went to School Without Walls), and competed in “We the People — The Citizen and the Constitution,” a moot court-style high school competition. Both law students began teaching the class in the fall, as two of the 23 Marshall-Brennan fellows from AU. Six of the fellows teach at School Without Walls. Their only guide was Raskin’s rough draft of his textbook, their main teaching tool. At first, not all the School Without Walls students were enthralled about taking the class, a required part of their American history course. Not only was Constitutional Literacy a late entry on the syllabus, not appearing until late summer, but also this unexpected class gave every indication of being a tough one. Yet, in time, these concerns would largely fade away. Hoffman and Feaster’s nurturing approach deserves much of the credit for the change in their students’ attitude. Determining that their students lacked a strong grounding in U.S. history, the AU law students began with rudimentary lessons. They opened with separation of powers and the three branches of government, Hoffman says, working their way into how to brief a case. Soon they were able to get into tougher areas, such as political questions, standing, and the meaning of state actor. Now the students are assigned a case, and they immediately know how to brief it, Hoffman says. The briefs are 20 percent of students’ grades, with journal entries, homework, and class participation also factored in. Despite their initial reservations, many of the students are pleased with the amount they’ve learned in the course. “You get a lot out of this class,” says Stacy Okoro, a 17-year-old junior. “I didn’t think that we had any rights because we’re underage — the government takes advantage of students.” And not all her learning took place in the classroom. Reflecting on her class’s visit to the Supreme Court, Okoro was surprised to discover that even lawyers arguing before the high court get nervous. Most of her classmates say they feel that student rights are at jeopardy in schools. “I think [the course] is good because these are our rights — and the school does screw us over,” declares Thalia Wiggins, a 16-year-old junior. Renettea Davis, another 16-year-old junior, agrees. “[The books are] all about our rights and how we can use them,” she says. “We learn how not to let them screw us over.” Jeanny Lee, a 17-year-old junior, says that she was glad to learn her rights now, because it will be harder to learn them later on. “Constitional rights apply through your whole life,” she says. Their U.S. history teacher, Gloria Cobbs, who teaches Advanced Placement history to juniors and seniors as well, is also pleased with the results of the class. “It’s worked beautifully,” she says. “American history is about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.” Cobbs is especially pleased with the course’s focus on the study of Supreme Court cases: “[Cases] are a study of change,” she says. “Where people were. Where they are now.” One of the benefits of the course has been that students have been forced to read newspapers outside of class to catch up with current events. They also tend now to better understand what the job of a lawyer involves, Cobbs says. AU’s Hoffman had taught high school in the past, but found her return to teaching after taking law classes a challenge, she says. “Having to break down four years of college, three years of work, and two years of law school is difficult,” she explains. Despite such hardships, both Hoffman and Feaster have grown to love teaching the course and have been pleased to hear parents praise the class as one of the few that truly prepares their teen-agers for college and the real world. Hoffman is one of eight fellows who will be returning to teach the course next year. The number of teachers in the fall will be roughly double, with 45 total law students teaching in schools around the District. According to Raskin, more than 100 law students applied for teaching positions. Feaster has a closer connection to School Without Walls. She is a 1993 graduate of the school, and two of her sisters have graduated in the past five years. “As a person [teaching has] affected me a lot,” Feaster says. “I feel like I leave every day [with something new].” The students have improved greatly since the fall, both in writing ability and in their discussion skills. Even the shy students have opened up a lot more, Feaster says. “Now, they come to class, and say ‘XYZ happened. Is it constitutional?’” she says. Hoffman agrees with her assessment. “They are not aware of it, but they know a lot [now],” Hoffman says. “They don’t like to admit that.” While Hoffman is coming back in the fall, Feaster is taking a job in the corporate sector. Hoffman is interested in public interest law, with a focus on women’s advocacy issues. “This is the best thing I’ve done as a law student,” Hoffman says. More praise for the program comes from one of the more high-profile volunteers in the program — former Independent Counsel and D.C. Circuit Judge Kenneth Starr, who serves as an assistant teacher at Anacostia High School. “It is a superb program. It was a stroke of genius, and it was very well-received by the D.C. school system,” Starr says. “I’ve been impressed by how welcoming the administration has been.” Starr has assisted with the class and provided support, including arranging a trip to the Supreme Court and filling in as a substitute teacher. He says he would like to expand his role to help students select colleges and find internships. “I’m trying to work with the students in the class in helping them secure internships in the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan area,” he says. Starr plans to continue his work with the program next year, but would also like to find a law firm or other organization to help sponsor and work with the program as well, he says. Starr is not the only member of the D.C. establishment to give the program good reviews. Among its other proponents are the president of the American Bar Association, William Paul, and D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams. “I think it’s a great idea,” says Mark Goodman, the director of the Arlington-based Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit group that provides legal help and information to student journalists and journalism teachers. “It seems to be a really important effort in making students more aware of the law and their rights. One of the frequent criticisms Goodman has heard of legal education for high schools students is that it teaches students about legal issues that do not have relevance in their day-to-day lives. Part of the problem lies with high school administrators who do not mind teaching students about legal rights, Goodman contends, so long as students do not know what their rights are in school. “The state [of student rights] is not very good in the sense that student rights are extremely limited in high schools today,” Goodman says. “It’s important for students to understand that what’s legally permissible in high school is not [necessarily] permissible in the world at large.” Raskin is already looking to expand the program beyond the D.C. area, with Baltimore a likely spot for it next to appear. “We believe that every law school in America should be involved in a constitutional literacy course in the community in which it operates,” he says. Derek Simmonsen is a recent graduate of American University and an intern at Legal Times.

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