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Driver

Are you smarter than a 7th grader?

by The Jacksonville Bar Association President Ray Driver

What is the supreme law of the land? Name the three branches of government. What are the first 10 amendments in the Constitution called? What are the two parts of the United States Congress called?

Seems easy enough, right? That's because we live and breathe it in our professional careers. Plus, most of us learned this stuff in our formative years.

Unfortunately, for many of the children in this country — and, frankly, unfortunately for us — civics education disappeared years ago from the core curriculum in our public school systems.

Now, we are paying the price. Questions similar to those in the first paragraph of this article are included on immigrants' required naturalization exam and a large percentage pass.

Give that same test to native-born American citizens and a large percentage fail.

Statistics show fewer than half of American eighth-graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights on a national civics examination issued in May 2011.

A 2005 survey by the American Bar Association found that nearly half of all Americans were unable to correctly identify the three branches of government. HALF!

As is frequently stated, our children are 100 percent of our future. Reading, writing, science, math, foreign languages and the arts are all well and good, but we can't stop there.

Our educational system has the opportunity — and the responsibility — to develop knowledgeable citizens who will decide the direction of our country. In order to preserve and improve our American democracy, it is essential to develop strong civic education programs.

Fortunately, the Florida Legislature recognized this is not an issue to be overlooked. Thanks to the hard work of several individuals — including our very own state Rep. Charles McBurney — former Gov. Charlie Crist signed the Justice Sandra Day O'Connor Civics Education Act in 2010.

Among other aspects, the act requires Florida middle-school students to take a civics class and pass an end-of-course test. This is the first school year in which the assessment test will be administered.

At the end of the 2013-14 school year, the test will be 30 percent of a student's final course grade. By the 2014-15 school year, each student must pass the test in order to be promoted to high school.

Why is civics such a vital component of our education system? Civics is the study of the rights and responsibilities of citizens. How can we expect our citizens to intelligently consider, debate and vote on constitutional issues when they don't understand the basics?

With civics education back in the school system, students will learn about the rights and duties of citizenship and why those rights and duties are important.

It will help them develop social responsibility and will encourage a greater understanding and respect for the rule of law.

With a deeper understanding of civics issues, such as our founding documents and the workings of the American government, students are more likely to be interested in politics and become informed voters.

Heck, maybe voter turnout will increase, too.

How do we help our students become excited about civics? We need to expose them to the subject matter and then engage and challenge them. We need to remember that it's about them, not us.

In 2006, Florida Supreme Court Justice Fred Lewis formed the Justice Teaching program for students in elementary, middle and high schools.

Through a variety of lesson plans, its objective is to promote an understanding of Florida's justice system and our laws, develop critical-thinking abilities, problem-solving skills and demonstrate the effective interaction of our courts within the constitutional structure.

The Jacksonville Bar Association also has a civics-based program where volunteer lawyers work with local teachers to deliver their state-mandated lesson plans. They enhance those lessons by bringing real-life experiences into the classroom.

Similar to Justice Teaching, our desire is to help students, among other goals, gain a deeper understanding of their constitutional rights as an American.

During the current semester, our pilot program featured about 20 lawyers and judges teaching more than 30 classes at the following schools: Alfred I. DuPont Middle School, Twin Lakes Academy Middle, Eugene Butler Middle, James Weldon Johnson Middle and Julia Landon Middle.

The response from the students, teachers and members of the Duval County School Board has been extremely positive. Accordingly, it is our intent to expand the program to more schools during the 2013-14 school year.

I believe we have an obligation to encourage our children to learn the law.

It does not need to be to the extent necessary for them to become future lawyers, but we should help them build a foundation to understand and appreciate their rights and responsibilities as citizens.

If you are interested in volunteering for our program, email me at rdriver@northfloridalaw.com.

Please consider dedicating a small fraction of your time to support this initiative to grow our children into responsible citizens.

I promise you won't regret it. Remember, these children are our future.

The Bar is open. Come make a difference.

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