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Gazette Premium Content Fifth-graders grill college students on Constitution

CAROL MCGRAW Updated: April 10, 2013 at 12:00 am

Stephen Schaetzle, college student and Navy reservist didn’t know what was in store early Wednesdaywhen the little kid in a red Liberty Day t-shirt with Betsy Ross flag on the back, asked for a minute of his time.

A good sport, he submitted to being politely grilled on the Constitution by Claire Byrnes, fifth grader.

It didn’t go so well.

“I haven’t a clue,” Schaetzle replied when she asked what the requirements are to be a U.S. Congressman.

Sympathetically, she handed him a mini-version of the Constitution and asked him to read the answer: be at least 25 years of age, a citizen seven years prior to election, and resident of the state

After his recital, Schaetzle joked: “It’s a long day already.”

The scene was repeated across the campus at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs as the 30 kids from Helen Keller Elementary School, Constitution questions in hand, stopped passersby in their tracks. There was only one guy who bolted down the hall, saying he had a lot of work to do.

The event, Liberty Day at UCCS, is sponsored by the Academy Optimist Club and the Colorado Springs Sertoma Club.

For the past four weeks, the Optimists and Keller teacher Tricia Torres have taught the Constitution to Keller students in a voluntary after school program.

The students even practiced how to approach people. “I was honored to ask you the question” was the soothing balm that Yahel Prieto and Brianna Martinez used on Drew Countryman. A political science major, he sped through a bunch of questions, including the 19th amendment( suffrage); the length of a Senate term is (6 years); and qualifications for president (born in U.S., at least 35 years old.)

His downfall were the five elements of the fifth amendment (double jeopardy; not be compelled to bear witness against self; due process; no taking private property without just compensation; and jury indictments.)

“It’s been a long time since I took Constitutional law,” he said.

Those ensnared in the kids’ academic adventure were all given mini copies of the Constitution to keep.

Because of time constraints in regular classrooms, elementary students usually don’t get an in-depth study of the Constitution, Torres said. The excitement that Liberty Day participants bring to their own classroom is catching.

“It is more powerful than learning from the teacher.”

Deb Harney, Academy Optimist spokeswoman noted that those in the after school classes “get to see the actual Constitution, see the depth of it, and hear the original language.”

Torres used the teaching materials from Liberty Day, a national nonprofit organization, that oversees the programs. The goal is to provide the workbooks and to every fifth grade teacher in the state and copies of the Constitution to every fifth grader.

Liberty Day was started by Andy McKean, a Denver Optimist. His ancestor Thomas McKean of Delaware signed the Declaration of Independence.

McKean got the idea for Liberty Day in 1996 at a summer literacy camp. “I asked the kids what July 4 was, and none of them knew. They were 3rd and 4th graders. I was surprised.” So next day McKean brought along a flag and copy of the Declaration of Independence and talked about the country’s founding.

“The idea is to make sure our kids know and understand and appreciate what it means to be an American. The Declaration was the promise and the Constitution was the fulfillment.”

McKean got initial seed money from the Kenneth King Foundation to print Constitution booklets to give to students.

The Daniels Fund recently provided $50,000 to distribute the mini-Constitutions to all fifth graders in Colorado and provide professional development workshops and materials for teachers.

Besides Optimist and Sertoma, a variety of service organizations such as Lions, American Legion, Rotary sponsor events around the country.

Liberty Day is actually on March 16th, the birthday of James Madison, who wrote the Virginia Plan, which was the basis for the Constitution, McKean notes.

The quiz days occur year round. Last fall, Patrick Henry Middle School students participated in a similar event at Colorado College.

The Academy Optimist Club has staged the local events for eight years, said Donna Priester, chairwoman and a former teacher. “We looked at it and said, Wow, this is important for our kids.”

Kandyce Hartsuiker, one of the chaperones accompanying the fifth graders, including her daughter Kara, said her son Keith still talks about the fun he had two years ago. “It gives them confidence as well as helps them learn a lot about history,” Hartsuiker said.

The kids aren’t the only ones learning.

Nicholas Martinez, a UCCS bookstore accountant, found himself unable to answer a question posed by Kevin Knebel about what power Congress was given in the 16th amendment.

The answer: Income tax.

“I should know that. I’m a CPA,” Martinez groaned good naturedly.

Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371 Twitter @mcgrawatgazette Facebook Carol McGraw

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