Rights, Responsibilities, Realities headline Bar's civics education



Photo 1: Shown left to right, Ann Cooper of Drew Cooper and Anding (observing); Joshua Wease, Foster, Swift, Collins and Smith; Brent Geers of Geers Law; James Sterken of Rodenhouse Kuipers; attorney Yvonne Briley-Wilson; and Rose Kleff, Thomas M. Cooley Law School student, listen as Jon Vander Ploeg, Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge, introduces himself. 

Photo 2: President-Elect of the Grand Rapids Bar Association Tom Behm introduced the attorneys and the 3Rs video to the class.

Photo 3: Yvonne Briley-Wilson leads an engaged group of ninth-graders in a session intended to help the attorneys get to know the students.

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Move over, Readin’, Writin’ and ‘Rithmetic: “3Rs” has now come to mean something more to the Grand Rapids community.

The Rights, Responsibilities and Realities of the new Grand Rapids Bar Association (GRBA) 3Rs program are key concepts in civics education being taught to Ottawa Hills High School freshman students.

Though the official kick-off for the program was Sept. 17, Nov. 13 marked the first day attorneys were in the classroom. Eight attorneys — including current GRBA President Kristin Vanden Berg — and one law student, along with GRBA?Executive Director Kim Coleman, came to the first section of teacher Sam Plakmeyer’s social studies classes.

Six of those lawyers have made the commitment to be group leaders for five groups of students in this section of the class for an additional six sessions this year. Tom Behm of Gruel Mills Nims and Pylman, who will be the next President of GRBA, doubled up with Rose Kleff, a student at Thomas M. Cooley Law School; and Joshua Wease, Foster, Swift, Collins and Smith, co-led with Brent Geers of Geers Law.

The other team leaders included Yvonne Briley-Wilson, “currently unemployed” as she said in her introduction; Jon Vander Ploeg of Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge who told students in his introduction that he is an Ottawa Hills graduate; and James Sterken of Rodenhouse Kuipers P.C.

Other attorneys and students will serve in each of four additional U.S. History and World History sections to reach all of Plakmeyer’s 2013-2014 students. They include: James Booth Burr, Jr., Ashley Burress, Faren Jennings, Lou Danner, Tracey Brame, Christopher Hastings, Jennifer McManus, Stephanie Myott, Brian Lennon, Ryan Grondzik, Tyrone Bynum, Charles Curcio, Kristen Guinn, Gregory Ripple, Courtney Quist, Salina Choice, Ford Turrell, Kathleen Aguilar, Sarah Miller, Lawrence Mulligan, Elizabeth Joy Fossel, Christine Holst, Suzanne Royce, Julie Westra, and former GRBA President Mark Smith, who initiated the task force to explore civics education options.

Before the students split into those groups, Behm introduced a brief video produced by the Cleveland Bar Association, which developed the original 3Rs program and popularized it in 2006-2007. The award-winning program now reaches over 3,000 Cleveland and East Cleveland students in 18 high schools.

The 2011 video features Josh Cribbs of the Cleveland Browns and a number of judges and lawyers reiterating the goals of the 3Rs program, including the slogan, “You can’t play the game if you don’t know the rules.”

The task force, which Mark Smith chaired as his presidency ended, looked around to see if there were existing models. Once they decided on the Cleveland curriculum, “things jelled very quickly,” Kristin Vanden Berg says. The Cleveland Bar was totally cooperative, and GRBA cemented the liaison with Grand Rapids Public Schools after Teresa Weatherall Neal took over as superintendent.

“GRPS did change it up a little bit,” Vanden Berg adds; the course fit better with Michigan’s ninth grade scholastic goals so the curriculum needed modifying, and GRBA moved some changes forward as well.

Ottawa Hills High School Principal Rodney Lewis and Assistant Principal Loraine Phillips, who is in charge of the ninth grade learning center, facilitated the logistics. And teacher Plakmeyer comments, “I think it’s really great.” All three are enthusiastic champions.

Phillips points out that Ottawa Hills has approximately 90% of its students eligible for free and reduced lunches, so there is a great need for helping the students overcome income disparities and see themselves as continuing on to college.

That is one of the stated goals of the 3Rs, to “provide practical career counseling to focus students on their potential beyond high school.” Others are to “improve understanding of and respect for the rule of law and our Constitution,” to “increase interest in civic and governmental issues,” and to “improve the ‘pipeline’ of minorities flowing into legal careers in the region.”

Vanden Berg notes that the final goal dovetails nicely with the Managing Partners Diversity Collaborative recommendations, particularly since the volunteer attorneys are likely to establish close, one-on-one relationships with the students on their teams by school year’s end.

The Ottawa Hills High School project is a pilot to determine if anything additional needs to be changed. If student participation is any indication, the program will be a great success.

“Look at these students, in all of the groups,” Vanden Berg observed. “They’re engaged; that really says something.

“I’m so excited.”