February 19, 2009
Vol. 28 No. 10

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    Neighbors challenges young studentsí preconceptions about law, political process

    By Sarah Galer
    News Office

    Photos by Beth Rooney

    One recent Saturday morning, a group of 16 University Law students and grade schoolers from Washington Park’s Betsy Ross Elementary School gathered in Classroom V of the Law School to discuss the United States’ two-party political system.

    The participants were all part of Neighbors, the Law School’s primary community service program, which reaches out to neighborhood schools.

    “The Neighbors program aims to give Chicago Law School students the opportunity to get involved in and give back to the community we live in but may not know much about,” said Neighbors President Mary Duby. “We strive to help local Hyde Park students develop an enthusiasm for learning inside and outside the classroom and help them make the most of their educational opportunities. The program is eye-opening, rewarding and, of course, a fun diversion from law for all the UC students who get involved.”

    Neighbors started in 1993 with a variety of outreach programs, including a soup kitchen, blood drive and tutoring. After it disappeared briefly in the late 1990s, Neighbors was resurrected as a purely education-focused organization. This year, there are about 25 Law students who participate in the organization’s three signature programs.

    The three-hour Saturday morning program, which involves fifth- through eighth-graders, takes place most weekends from November to May. This year, students are focusing on the three branches of government, the legislative process and political parties. The program will culminate in a mock Congress at the end of Spring Quarter.

    David Creasey, a second-year Law student, runs the Saturday program.

    “I try to make sure that the Neighbors program presents issues in a way that encourages the kids to challenge their preconceptions and think creatively,” he said. “As we work on our mock Congress, one of my goals is for the kids to realize that the issues we discuss, the issues they will ultimately be required to craft as legislation, are not simple issues with easy solutions. These issues have no simple solution, and strong arguments exist on all sides. Every time one of the students has an “ah-ha” moment, where they suddenly recognize a new problem or think about an issue in a different way, I believe I’ve accomplished something significant.”

    Second-year Law students Jeff Crapko and Curtiss Schreiber taught the recent Saturday class. As the lesson got under way, everyone was reminded of one of the program’s major lessons: Courteousness is important when debating sensitive subjects.

    “You can respectfully disagree,” Crapko told the room. “They are not wrong, necessarily. They are just looking at things a little differently than you are.”

    The children broke into groups with Law students to discuss Democrats and Republicans and the sensitive issues that help define a person’s political beliefs. The room was filled with a cacophony of discussion of how people in different parts of the political spectrum feel about abortion, gun control, the military, taxes and religion.

    The conversations were rigorous as each issue was discussed and the students explored their own feelings on the subjects. When asked what Democrats think about the teaching of religion in school, Zanah Reed, an eighth-grader at Betsy Ross, boldly said, “I know what I think.”

    This active engagement is exactly what Neighbors is trying to foster, as it will help prepare the students for the mock Congress. There, the young students will have to introduce bills and debate them in front of their peers, parents and Neighbors.

    This particular week they were given the chance to see a sample debate when “Senators” Crapko and Schreiber debated universal health care. “Health care is a right, not a privilege,” argued Sen. Crapko (D), who wore a blue tie for the occasion. “We simply do not have the money,” articulated Sen. Schreiber (R), in a red tie.

    The debate was a resounding success, eliciting excited, spontaneous responses from the audience.

    Monicka Williams, an eighth-grader, quickly raised her hand at the end of the debate, saying that it helped her finally understand the differences between Democrats and Republicans, and why compromises between them can be difficult to reach.

    “I am still confused,” she said about which party she would agree with on health care. “You both made valid points.”

    Quadasha Scott, a fellow eighth-grader and future centrist, said of the debate, “It was so good on both sides, it makes me want to be in the middle.”

    Neighbors also includes an after-school program with Betsy Ross, where Law students work with the children two afternoons a week, and an Autumn Quarter college guidance program with Kenwood Academy, helping high school juniors with college essays and applications. Neighbors also will volunteer in ACT prep classes for students at Kenwood.

    Funding for Neighbors comes from the Law School and the University’s Registered Student Organization Community Service Fund.

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