While some claim that civic engagement in America's youth is in decline, the "We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution" high school competition for Nevada's Congressional District 2, in its 26th year, has more participants this year than any district in the state has ever had. More than 150 students from nine high schools will compete in groups to address six sets of questions on U.S. Constitutional issues, all vying for the chance to represent District 2 at the Nevada State We the People competition in Las Vegas on Feb. 2.
A team from District 2 has won the statewide competition all but one of the program's 26 years. This year's state winners will travel to Washington D.C. April 26-29, where they will compete against other statewide winners. The District 2 event will be held 9 a.m. - 2:30 p.m., Dec. 15 at the University of Nevada, Reno Joe Crowley Student Union and William J. Raggio Building.
Nationally, the program is directed by the Center for Civic Education, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. In Nevada, the program is sponsored by the State Bar of Nevada. The University of Nevada, Reno and Truckee Meadows Community College are partners in facilitating the Congressional District 2 Competition. University President Marc Johnson and TMCC President Maria Sheehan, with Kathleen Dickinson of the State Bar of Nevada, will give welcoming remarks at the competition at 9 a.m.
The national We the People Program has two strong local ties:
- Scott Casper, foundation professor of history and interim dean of the University of Nevada, Reno College of Liberal Arts, is co-author of the textbook used by high school students across the nation to learn about the Constitution and prepare for the We the People competitions. He also teaches summer and school-year workshops on the program to teachers from across the country. Casper became involved with the program in the 1990s, when a Reed High School teacher contacted him about helping with the local program. He will give the keynote address at the closing ceremonies of the Nevada District 2 competition at 1:30 p.m.
- Another of the three co-authors, Margaret Stimmann Branson, also lives in Reno and is associate director of the Center for Civic Education. She is a retired civic educator and education administrator who was one of the creators of the national program in 1987, the Constitution's Bicentennial. (The third co-author is Susan Leeson, a retired Associate Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court who also is involved in Nevada's summer workshop for teachers using the We the People curriculum.)
Both Casper and Fred Lokken, associate dean of WebCollege and political science professor at TMCC, have been involved in the program for many years, and Lokken will serve with 24 other civic leaders as judges at this year's District 2 competition. Leah Wilds, associate professor of political science; and Robert Dickens, director of governmental relations at the University of Nevada, Reno, will also serve as judges. Alan Gertler, interim executive vice president for research at DRI, will also join them.
"We have a number of judges, representatives from the offices of our members of Congress, attorneys and other community leaders who volunteer as judges," explained co-director of the District 2 competition and attorney Marc Picker, who first became involved in the program nine years ago as a class coach at Damonte Ranch High School.
Picker said after the opening ceremonies, students will compete, 9:30 a.m. - 1:15 p.m. When the closing ceremonies begin at 1:30 p.m., two former participants in the program, Haley Summers and Kelli Brill, now students at the University, will address the students and guests. Then, Casper will give the keynote presentation, and the winners will be announced to conclude the event, at approximately 2:15 p.m.
"Community supporters - attorneys, judges, teachers and parents - drill the kids for months in preparation for this," Casper said. "That adds to the experience. The kids learn about the local civic community. Many past participants coach students or serve as judges later. Staying involved in the program is very rewarding."
Part of what makes the experience so rewarding is knowing that the program works. On standardized tests regarding political knowledge, We the People students scored 30 percent higher than their peers, and 36 percent higher on average than college students. In addition, We the People students correctly answered five key knowledge questions asked in the American National Election Studies at a rate of 74 percent, versus 17 percent of adults and 8 percent of high schools students.
"The program and its materials really engage students," Casper said. "They gain active knowledge of history, philosophy, politics and law, and apply that knowledge to present-day issues. These are superb students who typically go on to higher education and become excellent speakers, writers and civic leaders."
Research has shown that We the People alumni are not only better informed, but also more politically engaged. In the November 2008 election, 95 percent of We the People alumni surveyed reported voting, while only 73 percent of their young-adult peers surveyed nationally voted.
The Dec. 15 Nevada Congressional District 2 competition at the University is open to the public. Parking is available at the Brian J. Whalen Parking Complex on North Virginia Street, south of 15th Street.