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Lincoln heads to national spotlight

Local Constitution team to show off in Washington, D.C.
by: Nick Fochtman Lincoln High School student Cole Zollinger works on a poster during practice for the school's Constitution Team, which will represent Oregon at the national "We the People" contest in late April. Federal and state funds to support the program were cut this year, so families must fundraise more than ever to participate.

It was a civics lesson too rich for any textbook.

David Lickey, a longtime history teacher at Grant High School, recalls the moment last spring when his students were shoved by 'G-Men' just outside the U.S. House of Representatives chambers.

It was the security detail 'throwing sharp elbows' to make way for former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whose black Suburban was about to emerge.

'I've got some pictures of it,' Lickey says. 'For me, it's like going to the Oscars.'

Luckily, Lickey and his students - the 31 members of the Grant Constitution Team - were accompanied by Congressman Earl Blumenauer, who politely informed the G-Men that they did not have the power to order him or his group around while they were on Congressional turf.

The G-Men abruptly backed off and changed their tone, Lickey recalls, and Blumenauer then proceeded to tell the students about how Kissinger's questionable actions during the Vietnam War prompted him to go into politics.

'Then,' Lickey says, '(Blumenauer) started talking military spending, government secrecy, the nature of Portland and making leaders accountable, with intense personal conviction, animated from the energy he drew from the young people. For me, it was very likely the pinnacle of my career.'

Lickey had brought his students to Washington, D.C., to compete in the national 'We the People' competition, a beloved mock hearing-style competition that involves some of the brightest students and highest ranking judges and attorneys in the nation.

Grant's Constitution Team had qualified for nationals by winning the Oregon title three months earlier, snatching the crown from Lincoln High School. Lincoln had won the state contest in 2010 and went on to place fourth at nationals.

This year, they're back again, set to compete in D.C. April 28 to 30.

Grant had taken second at the state contest in January; Lake Oswego High came in third and Franklin High's burgeoning team came in fourth.

This year, program supporters are rallying the community more than ever before the national event. For the first time in its 25-year history, both the nonprofit Center for Civic Education, which sponsors the national event, and the nonprofit Classroom Law Project, which runs the program in Oregon, lost funding this year.

Unlike in previous years, teams traveling to nationals will no longer get federal and state subsidies to help pay their costs.

Many teams nationwide have had to drop out. Lincoln is charging ahead, but hoping to alleviate the cost - $1,750 per student for the six-day trip - for families by fundraising. The goal, says Lincoln mother and fundraising coordinator Tracy Barton, is to raise $25,000 in six weeks.

They'll tap into the generosity of their community, local business and others who've seen the impact on youth in the region and state.

'Kids are about truth and justice to their core,' Barton says. 'This feeds that.'

Meeting Sonia Sotomayor

No matter who the victor, 'We the People' is a tradition at many Oregon high schools, known as the ultimate test of academic teamwork, poise, knowledge and understanding of the U.S. Constitution and all of its intricacies.

Teams research a series of questions, based on different parts of the Constitution, and engage them in a mock hearing before a panel of the nation's highest ranking judges.

'It's the highest quality social education around,' says Lickey, who's taught the class at Grant class for the past three years.

Up to 80 students apply for one of the 36 slots in the class, a history credit, each spring.

Lincoln's class usually attracts about 100 applicants, which are mined through a student interview, essay and teacher recommendations.

Unlike most teams in the state, typically comprised of seniors, more than half of Lincoln's team are sophomores, since upperclassmen are consumed with International Baccalaureate work.

'We're very proud of our ability to go head to head with the other teams,' who have the advantage of two more years of life history and book smarts, says Tim Swinehart, in his fourth year of teaching the Lincoln class.

Two years ago at nationals, Lincoln students met privately for 20 minutes with new Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who invited them to sit around her in story-time fashion.

'She was so genuine with them,' Swinehart recalls. 'They asked her questions about her past, her childhood. It made her really personal, really human. Usually you see them in pictures on the walls.'

They also met young people working as Supreme Court clerks who might have inspired some future careers in politics, or as agents of change.

Something brilliant

Swinehart says the program wouldn't be possible without the alumni and parent coaches, some in their second decade. They spend at least five months with students, volunteering their time to practice and study every Tuesday night and one day per weekend, sometimes two. They learn how to write, organize and present their ideas, work as a team and back up their answers.

Students study six units of the Constitution that will be the focus of their competition. The follow-ups are impromptu and can be about almost anything related to current events, domestic or international.

One of this year's questions focuses on one of the most divisive issues in national politics today: immigration policy. Students are asked to cite the major arguments in favor of a less restricted or a more restricted immigration policy, explain why illegal or undocumented immigration became an unresolved political issue, and discuss 'the American goal of e pluribus unum and how successful has the United States been in achieving it, offering evidence to support.

'By asking kids to look so deeply into these questions, it forces them to think about things on a different level than most of us normally do,' Swinehart says. 'You watch and listen as something brilliant comes out of their mouth and you're filled with pride and awe and hope.'

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Check it out

For more information: www.classroomlaw.org.

To help Lincoln get to nationals this year, send a check to: Lincoln High School Constitution Team, c/o Lincoln High School, 1600 S.W. Salmon St., Portland 97205.