We the People: Seniors sweep state competition

Trumbull students know their constitution like the back of their hands.

That’s what Katie Boland’s AP government class proved last weekend when 24 seniors from Trumbull High School won the state championship for the We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution Competition at Central Connecticut State University Friday, Dec. 11.

The team swept the state with six first-place wins. The students began their preparation at the start of the school year, as they became experts testifying on constitutional issues in a simulated congressional hearing.

“It’s a really gratifying feeling to know that our hard work paid off,” said Gabrielle Tropp, a senior at Trumbull High School. “Trumbull’s We the People team has given me the knowledge to go out into the world as a good citizen and the ability to formulate opinions and think for myself about issues more complicated than I ever thought I’d be dealing with.

“I can’t wait to learn even more and do even more for Nationals.”

Now in its 29th year, the competition, sponsored by the Center for Civic Education (CA) and Civics First (CT), involved entire classes making presentations and answering questions on constitutional topics from judges around the state.

The teams were judged not only on the content of their opening statement but also on their ability to answer follow-up questions from a panel of judges with both opinion and fact.

Trumbull High School competed against teams from St. Joseph’s High School (Trumbull), Greenwich High School, Immaculate High School (Danbury), South Windsor High School, Staples High School (Westport), and Torrington High School.

Trumbull came in first, with 1,047 points out of a potential 1,080 points, followed by Greenwich (995 points) and Staples (951 points).

The victory marked Boland’s fifth straight victory at the state level.

“There are three keys to a successful team for the We the People competition – drive, passion, and teamwork,” Boland told The Times Tuesday. “This team has it. It’s not something that you can easily teach.”

“I never could have imagined the amount of knowledge and experience I would get out of this class before I joined,” said Matthew Buckwald, a senior at Trumbull High School. “I can debate with people with so much confidence and ability to carry on a respectful and efficient discussion.

“From being judged by some of the top lawyers in the region to sweeping the state in the competition, I am so grateful for this opportunity I have been given in We the People.”

Practice makes perfect

Besides doing research and collaboration, students also had the opportunity to practice in competition-like settings.

The Trumbull Academic Challenge for Excellence Foundation (ACE), led by liaison Kate Donahue of Trumbull, organized multiple practices sessions in the evening at the high school for the team throughout the semester.

The team also received help from a graduate of Trumbull High School and a former We the People state champion. Andrew Gladstein (Trumbull ’02) invited Trumbull to his law firm in New York City in early December for a special practice session. Special counsels and attorneys from his law firm, Schulte, Roth & Zabel, provided extensive background research and posed difficult questions to the group to push their research further.

In total, Boland said her students spend about 10 to 15 hours outside of school to research their questions.

“We've put so much work into this competition for the past few months, including after-school meetings with teachers and local history experts and working with a great group of New York City lawyers,” said senior Caroline Slack. “And the fact that every team won shows just how much we’ve collectively put our minds into this.”

She added that winning wasn’t the most important thing to her — it was the skills she gained from the class.

“I've learned so much from this program about U.S. history and how the government works,” Caroline said. “Because of We the People I have gained so much knowledge that will be valuable to me for the rest of my life.”

Caroline's teacher said watching her students prepare for states and reach their full potential her favorite part of the whole process.

"The students are so hardworking and caring toward one another," Boland said. "They truly exemplify what it means to be a team. They were all so poised and confident in front of the judges.

"It was amazing to watch," she added. "And so watching them execute such success at the state level is just amazing to witness."

Student reactions

A few days after sweeping the state competition, several students shared their feelings about what they accomplished.

"Sweeping the state was surreal," said Jimmy McEwan. "I knew we did well but to be in the awards ceremony hearing Trumbull being announced first for every unit was insane. BICEN has been an amazing experience and I'm so glad I am one of the fortunate members of the team that got to experience this."

Fellow senior Emily Ramsey also felt surprised when she heard Trumbull's team had finished in first across the board.

"I still cannot believe that we swept states," she said. "Although Ms. Boland said we were prepared and ready, it still didn't set in that we could actually do it. But, after seeing every unit perform, I knew it would happen.

"Having the entire family there at the award ceremony, including our lawyer Andrew Gladstein, was amazing," she added. "Every unit had their hands together, as they announced the winners. After Trumbull won every round, we knew we were heading to nationals.

"I am beyond grateful for this opportunity, and cannot wait to learn even more about our wonderful government."

In retrospect, Taylor Auten said the results weren't all that shocking.

"Looking back, I'm not surprised we swept the state," the senior said. "Everyone put in so much time and work into this competition, every unit cared just as much as the rest.

"So while it was obviously exciting and cause for huge celebration, it was not a surprise. But I can barely express what a great experience this class has been. I have actually decided to study political science in college now, just because of this class."

Up next

The team now advances to the national finals, to be held in Washington, D.C., from April 22 to 25, to compete against teams from all over the country.

Boland’s 2013 team came in eighth in the nation, and members hope to do even better this year.

“I want them to be able to have that experience every year,” the high school teacher said about advancing to nationals in the nation’s capital.

“For the students, it’s looking at the banner in my classroom with all the championship years on it and knowing they are part of something great,” she added.

The class will have a new set of questions in late January to prepare and more research to be done in order to attain success on the national stage.

“This class was amazing,” said THS senior Aravind Sureshbabu. “Not only because I was able to learn so much about our country but because of the kids. I feel honored to have done this with some of the smartest, kindest, and most dedicated people I have ever met.

“We became a family, and that’s what makes us different. I know we’re going to give it our all at nationals and make Trumbull proud.”

For more information about We the People, here is the link to the national finals website which will take place in April 2016 http://www.civiced.org/national-finals-2016