Many may not have known, but Sunday was National Constitution Day, and as part of a 10-year tradition, students at West Homer Elementary spent their Friday afternoon learning about the protections the three branches of government offers. They were also paid a visit by a caped superhero known as the Bill of Rights, but kids are spending more than just an afternoon learning about the inner workings of the U.S. government.
West Homer Elementary students observed National Constitution Day a couple of days early last week. The little-known holiday is something students celebrate each year, cramming into the gym to listen to Ginny Espenshade give a presentation on the powers each branch of government possesses.
“No one branch has more power than the others, kind of like rock paper scissors,” Espenshade explained to the gym full of students. “The executive branch might not like a law that they wrote and the executive can veto it, and the legislative branch can vote higher and overrule that veto.”
Espenshade is the executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Youth Court, a program within the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District that teaches kids about the U.S. government.
Espenshade uses her annual presentation to recruit kids into the program. Her current students enter the gym in groups of two holding alder branches to represent the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government, and eventually one lone student pretending to be a protestor is attacked by all three branches.
“So, we’ve got all three branches being mean to one individual. What else does our Constitution have to protect an individual, which means one single person’s rights?” Espenshade called out to the students before one student in the bleachers yelled out “Bill of Rights.”
Older kids who’ve sat through Espenshade’s talk a few times begin screaming the Bill of Rights before a caped superhero with a gold shield jumped into the gym.
“I protect things like freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and many other important liberties,” Bill of Rights told the kids.
This can seem incredibly timely given the discussion the country has been having about contentious protests and political commentary, but Espenshade said she has used this same scenario every year.
“We thought it was easier to show, and it’s important that we use the same scenario over the 10 years. It’s not a matter of which administration or which party. It’s about the principals of the Constitution,” she said.
Espenshade does note that students in her program have become more engaged over the past few years as the media has covered important constitutional questions. She said they became even more engaged after the 2016 election, and they get to put that engagement to use.
About 16 students participate throughout the district. Younger students in the program decide consequences for their peers through school-based court cases, dealing with in-school offences such as calling another student a name.
Older students in middle and high school deal with community-based cases. They decide what to do if another student is caught drinking or shoplifting, and everyone in the program gets the opportunity to be a judge, prosecutor and defense attorney.
“This is our twentieth year doing youth court on the peninsula. It teaches our students empathy. Some students start the program think they’re always going to want to prosecute, thinking there are good kids and bad kids,” Espenshade said. “What they learn very quickly is there are kids who made a bad choice or just happened to get caught when others were making the same choices.”
Espenshade said at its core, the program teaches students not to just learn how the government works or how to fairly decide consequences for others. It teaches students to invoke their rights, something kids learn every year when the Bill of Rights super hero pays a visit to West Homer Elementary.
“So, that’s why we have the kids call out and protect the individual. You have to invoke your rights,” Espenshade explained with a smile.