Law students return to high school 'home' to coach We the People team



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

All three law students who coached this year’s We the People East Kentwood team agree: winning the state competition in 2006 was one of the high points of their young lives.
Ben Alonso recalls that, after their East Kentwood team had to leave the Lansing competition before the winners were announced, someone got a call telling them they had come in first. “Everyone on the bus was shouting ‘We won we won we won!’  and we were all so excited,” Alonso says.

So, when the opportunity arose, first year student Alonso, and third-year students Shawn Arapovich and Brendan Graf from Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus, jumped at the chance to help coach their alma mater’s team.

“We’re giving back to where we came from,” says Graf.

We the People: the Citizen and the Constitution is a national competition whose participants are the first place teams in related state contests.  Michigan has held a competition since We the People’s inception in 1987.

The Center for Civic Education sponsors the national competition, and has developed a network to carry out each state’s contest. The Center originated out of a study at UCLA, became affiliated with the State Bar of California, and since 1981 has been its own California-based non-profit, non-partisan organization.

The purpose of the We the People program is to promote “civic competence and responsibility among the nation’s... students.”

The similar Michigan Center for Civic Education (MCCE), “dedicated to preparing an active and informed citizenry through law-related and civic education,” runs the Michigan competition; MCCE also puts on the high school mock trial tournaments.

The very intensive We the People curriculum uses the fiction of testimony at a congressional hearing to teach about the U.S. Constitution, its history and background, and the philosophies behind it, divided into six units.

This year, for example, students considered such questions as, “What are the philosophical and historical foundations of the  American political system?” “What principles important to the later development of constitutional government are set forth in the Magna Carta?” and “What were the main ideas or principles set forth in the Declaration?”

During the 26 years the competition has existed, East Kentwood has won the state competition 14 times, according to this year’s head coach Kenneth Ozanich, who has coached or taught the class every one of those 26 years.

The 2006 East Kentwood team in which Alonso, Arapovich and Graf participated, under the leadership of Deborah Snow, came in 11th in the U.S. competition, but won first place in the national Unit 3 award.

At the time and again in 2010, U.S. Representative Vern Ehlers “rose in support” of the first-place East Kentwood team in Congress. “I cannot overstate how important it is for students to graduate from high school with a comprehensive understanding of how our government works,” he said.

When all was said and done, the 2013 contest saw Howell High School narrowly beating out East Grand Rapids, which has had a successful run in several of the past years. The East Kentwood team came in third.

That is better than last year, when they received one of two honorable mentions, but was disappointing to the team and “kind of” disappointing to the three student coaches.

“The students were actively disappointed. They put so much hard work into it,” said Arapovich. “But it’s still great.” He points out that they did come in first in Unit 1, and were only 2 points away from a first place in Unit 6.

Alonso added, “They still learn so much, not only about the Constitution, but about etiquette, how to sit, how to talk — it still really helps them in life.”

Graf emphasized that the defeat itself also offers a lesson in resiliency. He likened it to the disappointment  he underwent when he served on Peter Hoekstra’s campaign for governor, where his expectations of working in state government were dashed when Hoekstra lost the primary. That negative event led him to law school, which he sees as a
great positive.

Going in, many of the East Kentwood students felt they had a good chance to win. “We were very well prepared, because we worked so hard,” said one young woman.

East Kentwood offers an AP Government class for credit as the route to participating in the competition. According to Ken Ozanich, “The work load the kids accept to be in the class is huge for a high schooler: practice every Sunday afternoon at the Kentwood courthouse for four hours, and they meet with their individual unit coaches for at least an hour a week after school, plus the normal class load.”

Kentwood Judge William G. Kelly not only opens his courtroom, but also serves as a coach.

All three Cooley students said the coaching experience was very worthwhile. “The competition teaches kids the foundations of our country, so it’s always rewarding. It also keeps me sharp as a law student,” Alonso said.

“It’s very heartening that teachers are engaging students at the high school level,” said Graf. “Civics education is integral to us being good citizens.”