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On the day Nebraska senators debated whether state law should require that students take the 100-question civics portion of the U.S. citizenship test, a group of Lincoln North Star students sat on the sidelines and listened.

Most have come to America within the past few years from Iraq and Mexico, Honduras and Vietnam, English language learners who on Thursday moved their civics lesson from the classroom to the state Capitol, a place many had never been.

They were there as part of Capitol Experience Day, a Civic Nebraska program that exposes middle school and high school students to the different branches of state government and gives them a glimpse of how it works.

About three years ago, Lincoln Public Schools made changes so that students with low to intermediate English language skills could begin taking civics courses, said Anne Hubbell, an instructional ELL coach with the district.

That meant students like those at the Capitol on Thursday could begin to learn civics earlier, rather than waiting until more advanced language classes.

Many of the district’s ELL classes have visited the Capitol as part of the Civic Nebraska program over the past three years, Hubbell said, and in the past two weeks, about 80 ELL students from Lincoln High, 24 from Lincoln Northeast and the 35 from North Star saw state government in action.

On Thursday, the North Star students met with a Nebraska Supreme Court justice in his chambers. They took the small Capitol elevator to the 14th floor to look out over the city that has become their own. They had lunch, learned about the history of the Legislature and talked with Lincoln Sen. Matt Hansen.

They watched senators debate a bill (LB1069) that would update the Americanism law and require students to take a portion of the citizenship test after Sen. Lydia Brasch convinced her fellow lawmakers to pull it from committee.

During their own “committee hearing” on the bill, students took on the role of senators who listened as their classmates “testified” for and against it.

They’d talked about the issue in class and had been able to choose whether they wanted to support or oppose it in the mock hearing, said Myra Popenfoose, their teacher.

Some of the students-turned-senators liked that the law would help students know more about how their government works, but others worried another test would be too much, especially when they're also trying to learn English.

Some of those students will be taking the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services test one day, said their teacher, and saw a school test as a good way to practice. And in the end, they voted to advance it.

Randa Khodida, a senior who came to Lincoln from Iraq four years ago, said she was impressed with how civil senators are during debate. 

Mohammad Barakat, a senior born in Iraq who came to the United States from Jordan two years ago, noticed the same thing. And he was impressed that in a courtroom both sides get a chance to speak.

Khodida -- who plans to go to college and become a businesswoman -- listened intently as Justice William Cassel told them how he became a Supreme Court justice, how accomplishing something like that depends on how hard one works.

“It was a good day to get information about how American government goes,” she said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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