Constitutionally confident: We the People team finishes eighth in national competition

Passion and preparation breeds success.

That’s what Katie Boland’s AP American Government class exemplified last month when 24 seniors from Trumbull High School placed eighth in the 29th annual We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution National Finals.

The three-day simulation of congressional hearings on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which was held in Washington D.C. from April 22 to April 26, 2016, was the culminating moment for Boland and her students after they took home six first place finishes at the state-level competition in December.

“Being able to sit back and watch them excel the way that they did was one of the highlights of my teaching career,” Boland told The Times Tuesday. “They were so well prepared and that came through in how they delivered their answers — they were excited and energetic, but also really confident and composed.

“It was impressive to see how they worked together and come together like a family, like they have time and time again,” she added.

Trumbull High School is familiar with the national competition — it has been there 21 of the 29 possible times as Connecticut’s representative.

However, last month’s achievement marks a rare moment for the AP students as only six other Trumbull teams have reached the prestigious top ten hearings and none higher than the eighth place finish nabbed by this year’s group of constitutional masters.

“Just to put into perspective, over 500 teams compete throughout the country during the year and 54 were picked to compete in D.C.,” explained Boland, who took over the program in 2012 and has taking the team to the nation’s capital every year since. “Of those first-place, state champion-winning teams we were in the top eight — it’s a very rare class to be in and a great accomplishment.

“It doesn’t happen often,” she added.

With many We the People alumni and plenty more Trumbull parents making the haul down to see the team testify in the Longworth Building on Capitol Hill that weekend, Boland knew that her students were poised for the big moment.

“It’s much more than a class; it’s a family and I think that really showed in this year’s group especially” she said.

“They were crowned state champions but they wanted to accomplish even more and they did,” she added. “They took a sense of pride in getting here and seizing this moment and that’s why it was so exciting to hear their names get called during the ceremony that Monday — the joy in their faces told me how much it meant to them.”

Student reaction

Jimmy McEwan, who performed in the group’s first unit, called the experience the highlight of his senior year

“All of our hard work really showed and it was amazing,” he said. The We The People program has been an amazing experience and I am so fortunate to be on this team that made it to eighth in the nation.”

Unit six member Emily Ramsey reflected on the friendships that were formed by the 24 students.

“The memories we made, and the success we achieved, will be with me for the rest of my life,” she said.

Aravind Sureshbabu, who presented with Emily, said it was incredible getting to spend all weekend with his amazing classmates and his wonderful coaches.

“Seeing how we all came together and seeing all of our hard work pay off was amazing,” he said. “This entire weekend — and this entire year — has been about all 24 of us coming together to help each other and to become a family.

“That experience was capped off when we all held hands waiting to hear our results, he added. “This class embodies the spirit of a family. Six units, one team.”

Unit two member Gabby Tropp said getting the opportunity to talk and impress state Supreme Court justices, professional lawyers, and professors was an unforgettable moment.

“The pride I felt for my classmates every time they nailed an answer was immeasurable,” she said. “I'm so grateful to have had this opportunity.”

Gabby’s sister, Rachel, also highlighted the experience of testifying in the same room as real experts and politicians.

Going into this weekend, unit five member Taylor Auten thought it was going to be super stressful and scary. “But it wasn't. It was fun,” he said. “We spent all year working for this and it all came to a point in these three days. We were all so glad for a chance to show what we had learned.”

Unit four member Matt Buckwald and unit six member Becky Molinoff agreed about the nerves settling in.

“It took awhile for me to realize that we had the opportunity to compete at the place where some of the most important events in our country's history happened, and it's all thanks to this program,” Matt said. “The amount of collaboration and innovation our team exerts every day is what keeps me going, along with the never-ending support from Ms. Boland and all of our outside resources.”

“The experience of getting nervous before each unit's performance and then the thrill after each classmate's expertly packed answers was amazing,” Becky added. “It was incredible to see the quantity of knowledge and understanding we all had, particularly in our follow-up.

“From hearing my classmates spout out Supreme Court case after case to watching my unit mates seamlessly explain the historical context of every current issue, I have seen the incredible results of all our hard work.”

The people you will meet...

At the national competition, Trumbull students testified in front of several state Supreme Court justices and explained to them the different levels of strict scrutiny with support from various Supreme Court cases.

They also had discussions with law school professors and district court justices about prosecutorial discretion on issues like President Obama's executive action and the constant struggle to maintain individual rights and national security.

“To see my students respond to the questions with eloquence, support, passion and case law was truly amazing,” Boland said. “We finished the long weekend with a meeting the steps of the Capitol on Tuesday with Senator Chris Murphy in which our students discussed the text of the 2nd Amendment with him and were all offered an internship in his office during college or after.”  If Sen. Murphy wasn’t enough for the young learners, Marc Ritacco, the senator's director of strategic initiatives and a 2003 alumni of Trumbull high’s We the People program attended the hearings and helped organize the special visit.

Another alumni from the 2003 team that also placed in the top ten that attended the hearing was Kamilah Tisdale, who works in State Rep. Jim Himes.

“The amazing thing about We the People is that you perpetually hear from alumni how it is one of, if not the most defining moments of your high school career but you don't realize how true that is until you actually get to experience it yourself,” said Trumbull senior Kristi Bui, who performed with the first unit.

Special thanks

Boland said she wants to thank Andrew Gladstein, one of her coaches throughout the year and an associate at Schulte Roth and Zabel in New York City.  

“Andy worked endlessly with the students on google docs and phone conversations as well as practices sessions at his firm in New York City,” she said.  

As a 2002 alumni from the program, Gladstein's guidance, passion, and mentorship to all the students throughout the course of the year paid off dividends for the Trumbull seniors, according to Boland.

For his part, Gladstein said he couldn’t be more proud of “this special group of students.”  

“Their ability to comprehend and digest complex constitutional issues of both the past and present is unparalleled,” he added. “And their commitment to each other, and to their collective goal, never wavered.  

“This accomplishment comes as no surprise to the many of us at Schulte Roth and Zabel who have had the pleasure of working with Ms. Boland and her team,” the THS graduate said. “We look forward to continuing our partnership with Trumbull High School’s We The People program.”

He wasn’t the only one getting a special shout out from the social studies teacher.

“This also wouldn't be possible without the support of Kate Donahue and the ACE Foundation who organized numerous practice sessions for the team throughout the year and Dr. Gary Cialfi and the Trumbull Board of Education which supported the team monetarily so that we could go to Nationals,” Boland said.

Dr. Gary Cialfi, superintendent of Trumbull Public Schools, attended the hearings on Saturday and Sunday and sat in the first row supporting the students.

“This is a tremendous accomplish for Ms. Boland, the students, and the entire Town of Trumbull not just for this year but for all of the past and future years of We the People,” he said. “It just does not happen very often. The students were phenomenal throughout the competition.”

Boland added that Trumbull was probably the only team out of 56 that had its superintendent front and center supporting his kids.

Before signing off, she said a special thanks to the entire community.

“It’s often been said that it takes a village to raise a child, and it’s certainly true that it takes the entire town of Trumbull (and beyond) to help cultivate these young students into something amazing,” the social studies teacher said. “When asked what the founders created at the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin responded with ‘A republic, if you can keep it.’   

“These 24 students are the future of our country and we are in good hands.”