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Student knows her civics
Mastery of constitution gets Sioux City North senior trip to Washington

SIOUX CITY -- How well do you know the U.S. Constitution?

That was a question Kate Johnson, 18, asked herself. The answer, initially, was not very well at all.

"Guess everybody sort of knows what's in the Constitution," the North High School senior said. "Yet very few people have taken the time to actually read it."

Reading and understanding the document became a goal of Johnson's after she was encouraged to enter a Know Your Constitution contest by history teacher Charles Hoberg.

"For many years, the Iowa State Bar Association has sponsored a Know Your Constitution program," Hoberg explained. "Open to ninth- through 12th-grade students, entrants were required to take a 50-question quiz and answer a question analyzing a constitutional issue."

Out of the more than 1,500 applicants from across the state, Johnson was one of the 100 finalists who earned the right to attend a special luncheon, held in Des Moines on Jan. 11, in which Iowa Supreme Court Judge Susan Christensen was the keynote speaker.

It was also at this luncheon that Johnson became one of five students chosen for an all-expense paid, weeklong trip to Washington, D.C., sponsored by Close Up, an educational organization that informs, inspires and empowers young people to exercise their rights and accept the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy.

Hoberg and four other Iowa high school history or civics teachers were also invited to attend.

The trip, which began Sunday and will conclude on Friday, will allow Johnson to meet with Iowa's U.S. representatives and senators as well as visit various historic sites.

At the same time, Hoberg will be attending Close Up workshops, in which educators find innovative ways of incorporating the U.S. Constitution into the high school curriculum.

"I'm looking forward to it," Hoberg said a few days prior to the trip. "It will only be the second time I've visited Washington."

This will also be the second time that Johnson has been in the nation's capital.

"I went on a family vacation to Washington when I was 12," she explained. "Still, it will be interesting to see the city with adult eyes."

Which isn't to say that Johnson won't have time for fun.

"The last time I was in D.C., the highlight of the trip was seeing all of the beautiful dresses worn by First Ladies at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History," she said. "I'd love to see those gowns one more time."

Johnson acknowledged she was likely chosen as one of the Know Your Constitution contest winners on the strength of her essay question. Students were asked to weigh in on whether a U.S. president had the constitutional power to fire a special counsel while issuing a blanket pardon if he or members of his campaign were caught illegally using campaign funds.

That was a thorny issue for Johnson, who considers herself nonpartisan.

"This is one of the reasons I found the U.S. Constitution so intriguing," she said. "Nothing is ever completely black or completely white. Instead, there is plenty of gray when interpreting the Constitution."

To be honest, that suits Johnson just fine.

Planning to attend the University of Nebraska in the fall, she's looking forward to becoming a biology and environmental science major. After earning her bachelor's degree, Johnson would like to attend medical school.

Despite that, Johnson is willing to keep her options open.

"I'm not very political now but the environment is something I truly care about," she said. "If there's any political issue that can bring out the activist in me, it will be the environment."


Antonio Calanni, Associated Press 

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Justin Wan, Sioux City Journal 

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