We The People coach earns Liberty Bell Award

April 27, 2009
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On May 1, the Grand Rapids Bar Association will celebrate some of law’s notable contributors within the Grand Rapids community. One is East Grand Rapids High School government and economics teacher Janice P. Yates.

Yates coaches the school’s We the People program, a federally funded program through the Center for Civic Education aimed at high school juniors and seniors to enhance their understanding of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Yates’ heavy dedication to the program has earned her the GRBA’s Liberty Bell Award.

We the People takes place over the course of a school year: First semester is a class, while during the second semester, students prepare for mock constitutional hearings.

“What we do is study the constitution: history, philosophy, application, Bill of Rights, Civil Rights and citizenship,” said Yates. “The students become experts on constitutional topics.”

They then compete regionally with other schools. Winners go on to compete statewide, and winners of the state competition go to a three-day national tournament held in Washington, D.C. In order to compete on the third and final day there, teams must make it into the top 10.

Yates’ teams have gone on to nationals eight out of the last nine years, with their highest finish at fourth place. What makes this feat even more impressive is the fact that students can only participate in the program once, so every year brings a fresh set of students.

“It’s by far the most impressive educational program I’ve ever been involved with,” said Yates.

Yates was originally introduced to the program while teaching at Hudsonville. When she came to East Grand Rapids High School, Yates asked if she could teach a class for the program.

“The first year I came to East Grand Rapids High School, they didn’t actually have a class for the We the People program. I went to the principal and said, ‘Look, I’d really like to offer a class so we could get the program started,’” said Yates.

It was early September 2000 when Yates made her request and the class schedule had already been set. Yates asked to teach the class at night.

“I said, ‘All I want to know is, can I offer the class and will the students get credit?’ (The principal) said, ‘Well, yes, but I can’t pay you for it. It’s not in my budget.’”

Yates was undeterred and began the program anyway, recruiting the 12 students that are a mandatory minimum to enter the program. That year marked the first of many that Yates’ team would win the state level competition and go on to nationals.

The We the People program also has a way of bringing the community together, said Yates. Each year students have to fundraise to pay their way to Washington, D.C. Students raise money using “all the traditional ways,” said Yates, meaning can drives, selling cookie dough and taking donations from members in the community.

During her first year at EGR High School, Yates also met her husband, Christopher Yates, through the program. He is now Kent County Circuit Court Judge.

This year, when Yates was diagnosed with breast cancer, she called on long-time rival and friends at East Kentwood High School to help her team prepare for nationals in her absence.

“After we won the state competition (beating out East Kentwood by four points) in January, in February I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” she said. “I had to go into surgery and I missed an entire month of school. It’s been a challenge and the strength of this program is that it builds up such civic values. As soon as I found out I was going to have to have all that done, I called my archrival and said, ‘I need your help.’ She brought her whole entourage from East Kentwood and helped the team out.”

Many of her students have gone on to study law at colleges such as Harvard and Notre Dame, and Yates says they still keep in touch.

“I can’t tell you how many letters I get back from students who have done this program who write me years and years later and say, ‘I can’t tell you how much that program meant to me,’” she said.

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