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Constitution elocution: Students show civics chops at We the People

Ryan Crosby, a student who graduated from Mojave High School in 2015, startled people when he said, “We the People saved my life.”

His story and another involving a class from Canyon Springs High School are extraordinary testimonials about a program that receives little publicity yet changes lives.

We the People is a nationwide competition started in 1987 by the Center for Civic Education.

It emulates a congressional hearing in which small panels of students present information based on a specific aspect of the Constitution. Then they answer follow-up questions from three or four judges, who are mostly A-listers from Las Vegas’ legal, judicial and educational community.

Crosby had left a school where he had lifelong friends because his family moved.

When he started at Mojave, “Initially I had no friends and only a few acquaintances.” He grew depressed, then suicidal. Two weeks after he sought professional help, his government teacher, Averill Kelley, started him studying toward the competition.

“I got to the point where I stopped seeing the world in the negative way,” Crosby wrote. “By the day of the competition, I was so connected with my group, and the other groups, that I felt like I could do or say any anything to anyone with confidence. My life completely flipped around.”

Organizers such as District Judge Elissa Cadish and Kathleen Dickinson, the law-related education coordinator for the State Bar of Nevada, recalled Crosby’s emotional narrative from two years ago at this year’s We the People competition, held Saturday at Valley High School.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Cadish recalled.

“The audience gave him a standing ovation,” Dickinson remembered.

The moving second story from the 2015 competition emerged from Canyon Springs High School and was told by Dickinson and government teacher Louis Grillo. Dickinson nominated the Canyon Springs participants for the Warren E. Burger Award, which lets one class in the nation from a low-income area attend the We the People national finals in Washington D.C.

The 28 students in the class could go. But Jennifer Donis, who was fighting leukemia, could not because her doctor forbade it.

The 27 kids who went included Tea Rivera, who videotaped everything the class did.

“She made a video and when it was played in class, it was very touching,” Grillo said.

Southern Nevada participation in We the People surged several years ago because Clark County School District Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky became a fan. He saw it in action in Carson City in 2014 and recognized how it crosses fields of study, helps students learn critical thinking and builds confidence. Not all government teachers participate because it’s difficult to teach and difficult to learn.

On Saturday, the Southern Nevada competition had 900 students from 33 schools, 54 judges and 100 volunteers. Nine of the 33 schools advanced to the state competition in February. One Nevada school will go to the national finals in April in Washington, D.C.

The program in Nevada is mostly privately funded, operating on a $60,000 annual budget — $13,000 comes from the State Bar, $3,600 comes from a Nevada Humanities grant and more than $8,000 comes from book sales revenue-sharing from the Center for Civic Education.

Judge Cadish started judging We the People when she was a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Philip Pro, who headed the program for 26 years before turning it over to her. Cadish is impressed “by the quality of what they present and by those who can apply the Constitution to modern events.”

State marijuana laws, the Electoral College and immigration all were discussed and debated by students Saturday.

“It’s so refreshing to see how much these kids know and how well they can articulate and enunciate when they speak,” said another judge, Clark County School Board member Carolyn Edwards. “They’re very thoughtful in their answers.”

I’ve participated as a judge since We the People began in Nevada. Every December, I leave feeling hopeful about our country’s future. Many students impress me with their grasp of complex constitutional concepts.

Let’s honor the students who study and care about our country’s values and its Constitution.

Let’s praise the nervous ones who have a hard time competing but give it their best.

Let’s celebrate Ryan Crosby, the student willing to say out loud that it saved his life, and Jennifer Donis, the student who couldn’t go to Washington, D.C., but went in the hearts of her fellow students, courtesy of Tea Rivera.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column runs Thursdays. Leave messages for her at 702-383-0275 or email jmorrison@reviewjournal.com. Find her on Twitter: @janeannmorrison

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