WESTFIELD - As last year's senior high school class prepares to move on to college or the workforce, 18 of them from Westfield Academy and Central School will be using skills learned while taking part in a national competition.
After finishing third out of four teams at the We the People New York State competition, 12 of the 18 students from social studies teacher Greg Birner's class chose to go on to compete in the National finals, held April 27 through May 1 in Washington, D.C. The annual competition challenges students to learn the ins and outs of the Constitution of the United States and be prepared to be judged on and answer questions about their conclusions and opinions.
The team from Westfield finished 47th out of 56 teams from around the country, facing judges that included private practice lawyers, trial judges, state senators and other prestigious people, including some from New York State competition. The students gave presentations and answered judges' questions over two days of the competition, a competition Westfield has never before competed in.
Photo by Jenna Loughlin
Students from Westfield Academy and Central School who competed in the National finals of the We the People competition give a presentation on their experience to the Board of Education earlier this year. The students are, from left to right: Jade Gelsimino; Marcus Jopek; Lexie Momberger; Garrett Grant; Iain Cockram; Alec Freyn; Don Wood III; Chelsea Poletto; Rachel Quagliana; Haleigh Hoebener; Joseph Marshall; and Carly Backus. Board members watching the presentation are, from left to right; Steven Reynolds; Francine Brown; and Marie Edwards.
"I am just immensely proud of those 12 kids," Birner said. "And I am still proud of the 18 that I took to State."
The 12 students who competed at Nationals were Carly Backus, Iain Cockram, Alec Freyn, Jade Gelsimino, Garrett Grant, Haleigh Hoebener, Marcus Jopek, Joseph Marshall, Lexie Momberger, Chelsea Poletto, Rachel Quagliana and Don Wood III. Overall, even as Momberger described being in front of the judges as "nerve wracking," most if not all of the 12 would do it all over again.
When the students found out they had made it to Nationals, Gelsimino was shocked, and Wood wondered if the team was going to be able to go because the trip would cost $1,000 per student at a time of budget crunching.
"It was kind of surreal because states was already a big deal and then we were like, 'Wait, we could actually participate in something else?'" Backus said.
Grant started getting nervous over spring break because he had been nervous at the state level, and was dreading competing at a national level. In addition, the team was losing six members, which meant each student was going to have to do more work.
"I actually ended up with two units so we had to write six speeches," Backus said.
However, the WACS students answered the challenge.
"Their preparation for Nationals was solo I would say for the first month," Birner said. "I have to totally give these kids a lot of (credit)."
Birner had to split his time between the economics class he was teaching as well as getting his team ready for Nationals. However, once he was able to give his student teacher the economics portion, he got to see where students were at in terms of preparation.
"They blew me out of the water," he said. "It was nice to feel and be a part of a really strong team."
"We worked harder, I think, than some of the other schools that took it more for granted," Grant said.
From the beginning, Birner told his students if they wanted a shot at being in the top 10 finishers, they would have to memorize their speeches.
Because of the number of participants and the number of speeches each would have to give, this task was just unreasonable, and Birner did not want to put that pressure on them. Therefore, he had his students focus on responding to the follow-up questions and use note cards for their speeches, the same thing they had done at States.
Once Westfield made it to D.C., it found a different atmosphere then it had experienced during the state competition.
"The teams were a lot friendlier," Momberger said. "We had kids asking us to study with them, which was really nice because we got to hear their side of the arguments because they were from very different areas."
During the joint study experience, one of the questions was about racial profiling. Backus and Momberger recalled talking with a student from South Carolina who was the son of an immigrant who said his state has a law similar to SV-1070 in Arizona. The student said he expected he would get pulled over some day just to ask for his papers.
Momberger asked if he was upset by this, and he said he didn't know. He said he would comply, but was not thrilled with the idea.
"It was nice to be able to talk to someone like that, that actually knew what those kind of laws are like and is kind of targeted by them," Momberger said.
The level of competition was also noticeably higher. While at States, each student only had one speech. At Nationals, they each had one speech per day over the two-day competition, a total of six to seven hours. In addition, the rooms in which the students gave their presentations to the judges - George Mason University classrooms - were set up differently, making the judges a lot closer, and more intimidating.
"The judges asked tougher questions on follow-up," Wood said.
"As opposed to asking scripted questions, they definitely came up with their own on the spot," Backus said. "They kind of fed off of our speeches."
This made it difficult because the students had no idea what kinds of questions to expect.
"You can only do so much studying," Backus said.
"To be able to do this program and enjoy sports and music and everything else, it's really great and well-rounded," Freyn said. "But that made it a lot harder competition when, basically, we're up against people that all they do is study law in their entire curriculum."
Backus described a moment after judges left the room, when her Unit 6 team thought, "Wow that was great," because there had just been a legitimate discussion with judges where they kept questions going for a particularly long time, bringing up multiple examples.
"It was just great to be able to have that back and forth," Backus said.
"The competition was brutal," Birner said.
The hardest thing, he said, was judges attacked speeches, testing whether the students knew what they were talking about
"Our kids answered the call," Birner said, noting he saw growth and increased confidence from day one to day two. "They went blow (for) blow."
However, the students had a great time in the end and were able to do quite a bit of touring. Even though the students had been to D.C. in seventh grade, and others again with the band, there was still endless amounts of sightseeing to do.
"There were lots of monuments," Cockram said.
Momberger said she appreciated D.C. a lot more now that she is older and has learned so much more about it. A favorite memory of Gelsimino, and others, was of chasing sheep wandering outside of Mount Vernon. Backus enjoyed getting to see some of the monuments at night. She remembered the World War II monument was amazing at night because of all the reflections.
In terms of how it felt to represent Westfield at the competition, what surprised most people the students spoke to was just how small their school was.
"Everyone else was surprised when we told them the biggest graduating class at our school is 72," Wood said.
"It was crazy being from Westfield because we're so small," Backus said. "We had our little 12 person team and then the people who won, I think they had 40 people on their team."
While each student will take away something different from the experience, having learned skills on top of knowledge was a constant theme.
For Freyn, the valedictorian for the WACS Class of 2012, the competition has helped him understand politics and the importance of getting involved with local government. Also, when focusing on researching for questions, he learned how to form opinions on current events like the health care bill and gay marriage laws based on law.
"You had to, not just make opinions, but you had to make foundations for your opinions using the Constitution and Supreme Court cases," Freyn said. "So it really helps you solidify your ideals with the background of the Constitution so you can actually argue your views with actual facts."
"I actually enjoy history and government a lot more," Backus said. "Before it was just another class."
"I think it really helps with being a part of society and knowing your place," Haleigh Hoebener said.
For Birner, what he hopes his students got out of the competition was public speaking skills, learning to work with others, research skills, study skills, critical thinking and application of knowledge.
"That to me is what it's all about," Birner said. "When you start applying knowledge, you know you've learned it."
The students were also very thankful for the support shown to them by the Westfield community which allowed them to raise funds to attend the National competition. Birner could not thank the donors enough.
"It was really nice to have the community support us by giving donations," Grant said. "For a small community to band together, that that happened was nice."
Wood knew the trip was not cheap and that the district was having financial troubles, so it was nice the students could still go. In asking businesses to support the trip, Gelsimino had to explain what We the People was and even though they had not heard about it before she got there, many were willing to help out.
"It was nice to see they would support us after just learning what it even was," Gelsimino said.
For Birner, he was, "like a kid in a candy store," getting to tour D.C. for the first time and finding time to indulge one of his hobbies, military history, by getting to see Old Glory at the Smithsonian Museum.
"This, to me, came from the kids to me," Birner said. "The gift of that trip that they gave me was, to a history teacher that's passionate about American history, phenomenal.
"I was glad it was great for them, but I wanted them to know it was great for me," he said. "It was a reward. ... Without their work ethic, without their drive, none of it would have happened for me."
Birner told his students he hopes they will remember this trip when they look back and think about high school, because when he retires and looks back at his professional career, he knows he will never forget it.
"People need to know those kids went way above and beyond," Birner said. "They made Westfield proud. They made me proud, that's for sure."