Sarasota Young Lawyers reach out: Partnership brings civic education to area students

Stephanie Simmons’ American government students were among 40,000 in the Southwest Florida area who got an extra dose of civics education through a text developed by Sarasota’s Young Lawyers in collaboration with the school board and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The project was funded in part by a Florida Bar Foundation Voluntary Bar Association Community Service Grant.

Students in Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties have been learning this year about the U.S. Constitution, the branches of government, how bills become law and other fundamental principles of American government through a project spearheaded by the Sarasota County Bar Association Young Lawyers Division (YLD).

In partnership with the Sarasota County School Board and the Sarasota
Herald-Tribune’s Newspapers in Education Program, the Sarasota YLD developed a 20-page magazine packed with articles written by Sarasota attorneys to fill specific gaps in the students’ civics education.

“It’s been really successful. It provides a lot of the information that teachers are going to need for the new Sunshine State Standards at the middle school level especially,” said Bernadette Bennett, program specialist for K-12 social
studies for the School Board of Sarasota County. In the past, the Sarasota YLD had sponsored essay contests and mock trials in celebration of Law Week, but after meeting with Bennett, they decided to create the magazine, which is accompanied by three teachers’ guides developed by school personnel one each for elementary, middle and high school.

An added benefit of the magazine is that it is reusable.
“This just has a much more powerful and lasting effect,” Bennett said.
Dan Guarnieri, who chaired the committee that developed the magazine,
helped recruit 15 other lawyers to write the articles for “Celebrate Freedom,
Celebrate Civics” and wrote one of the pieces himself.

“It wasn’t difficult to get attorneys to sign up for this because they know this stuff, so that worked out very well,” Guarnieri said.
The partnership with the schools and the newspaper enabled the YLD to reach 40,000 students. “We’ve always had a lot of success working with the schools,” Guarnieri said. “They are a natural avenue where we can reach a large number of kids efficiently.”

The Newspapers in Education program provided $30,000 of the $40,000 production cost through inkind support. Of the remainder, $2,500 came from a Voluntary Bar Association Community Service Grant from The Florida Bar Foundation. The Sarasota YLD also received $4,200 toward the project by winning the President’s Award from The Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division president at the 2009 YLD Affiliate Outreach Conference, which also was sponsored by the Foundation. A little more
than a quarter of the President’s Award came from Foundation funds.

“It was almost impossible to get sponsorships at the time, as it was when the economy was in the severe stages of a full tilt and we were rejected by several sponsors that we approached for funding,” said Nancy Cason, president of the Sarasota County YLD at the time the project was developed. “Had it not been for the Foundation grants, we would not have been able to do this project, which brought civics and the law back into the classroom.”

Cason said the YLD had a launch party with school personnel, and the attorneys could see how excited the teachers were about having a new educational tool they could use in their classrooms. “We got nothing but positive feedback, and we continue to get positive feedback, all thanks to the Foundation grants,” she said.