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WACS students take third place at statewide law competition

March 24, 2016
By David Prenatt ( , Westfield Republican

It may not be a case of "David vs. Goliath," but the We the People team from Westfield Academy and Central School certainly can stand tall among any school in the state.

The WACS team took third place in the state competition in Albany on Feb. 27, competing against five larger schools, all from Eastern New York. First place in the competition was taken for the second consecutive year by the Law and Government team from New Visions, a school comprised of students from several districts in the BOCES Capital Region.

Sixteen Westfield students took part in the competition and began preparing in September. They are: Cameron Abbey-Mott, Jason Babcock, Brooke Bennett, Meghan Bodenmiller, Brenna Culbreth, Brandon DeJohn, Bryce Gatto, Taylor Kassman, Josh McCord, Dan McMurray, Amy Meleen, Trevor North, Joey Quagliana, Claire Tilley, Laura Tofil and Jonathan Wilson.

Article Photos

Submitted photo
Westfield Academy and Central School students who competed in the We The People competition in Albany pose for a picture after the event.

The WACS team was made up of six units comprised of three persons each. Each team focused on a different aspect of the constitution, including topics such as the compromises made at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, due process, filibuster, and the universal declaration of human rights. Even though WACS took third overall, the unit five won first place and units six and two won second place in the individual unit scores.

The website of the New York State Bar Association states that "the primary goal of We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution is to promote civic competence and responsibility among the nation's elementary and secondary students." The two top teams from the competition will take part in the national finals April 22-25 in Washington D.C.

The Westfield "We The People" team is taught and guided by history teacher Greg Birner. The students universally credit their success to his inspiration.

"We all worked really hard. We wanted to do the best we could for the school and for Mr. Birner," said Cameron Abbey-Mott.

"It was just a lot of fun. Mr. Birner made it ten times better than it could have been," said Taylor Kassman. "He was always saying: 'You guys are getting better.'"

"It was nice to have him so proud of us. There were tears in his eyes," said Brenna Culbreth. "He said he's never had a class like us," added Kassman.

Of course, Birner is immensely proud of his team. "They worked their tails off to be the best they could be. I have never had a group work this hard and this closely. They would meet with each other on the weekends outside of school time. They are truly an amazing bunch," he said.

Given the level of competition the Westfield team was up against, Birner said he was overjoyed with coming in third. "When we received third place I was ecstatic!" he said. "Perhaps in other years this would have been a first place finish, but the competition as always is really tough. It took a while for my kids to recover, and I am still explaining to them today what they were up against and how proud I am of them. They need to know that for our little school, this was a HUGE accomplishment."

The students also said the competition itself was an affirming experience. "My favorite part was during the awards ceremony," said Jason Babcock. "It showed us how hard it was to get there. Some of the schools we were up against were really big."

Joseph Quagliana agreed. "Right before the competition, I was really nervous. And then I started to calm down and by the end I wasn't nervous at allAt one point we started joking around with the judges."

Even the judges in the competition were impressed by the students. "One professor said that he did not think his students from the university could debate like we did at the completion," said Abbey-Mott.

While some of the districts in the competition had large enough teams to have some students research the questions and others work on the presentation, the team from Westfield had to do all of it all from beginning to end. Also, Westfield was the only district representing Western New York, which actually put them at a disadvantage when it came to the completion.

"In a way, this would be like a Class C basketball team from Chautauqua County, not playing a game all year long, and then going straight to the AA Basketball State championship tournament," Birner said. "Finishing third was no easy task. For example, the team that won the championship, New Visions Law and Government, is a school that draws from 10 surrounding schools for students who are going to college for law and / or government. In the end, our team put up a great fight."

"We went straight to state," said Abbey-Mott. "The other teams had experience competing at local and regional levels first."

"The 1st and 2nd place winners were schools that were able to have people come in and demonstrate public speaking to their teams," added Brooke Bennett.

Joshua McCord said he enjoys talking about the constitution and was not nervous. In fact, he enjoyed the competition. "I found it more fun than anything," he said. "With the team we had, I was not surprised that we won. But to go against schools who had kids going on to Harvard and Yale, I felt it was pretty great."

Jonathan Wilson said the team's success at the competition made all the work worthwhile. "It was a lot of out-of-school work getting prepared - a lot of reading and editing," he said. "It was fun to be able to see the outcome on competition day, to see that it all paid off."

"We went there ready to win and we did win," said Megan Bodenmiller. "Even though we are not going on to nationals, we have so much information and knowledge of the constitution that we have learned."

But the Westfield students who participated in the competition took away far more than a third place award. Furthermore, they see their experience as something much greater than a competition.

"My favorite part of the whole experience was getting to know the constitution in general," said Culbreth. "It's a lot easier to say I actually understand it now."

"We realize that we built a republic and it's going to be a good republic if we are willing to keep it going," said Bodenmiller. "You learn your civic duty, things like taxes and voting and jury duty. You learn why things are the way they are."

Birner said he has no doubts about the ability of his students to succeed. "I could truly praise these kids all day, and will if asked, but what they did was truly amazing. In the end, they will be awesome citizens, which is the main goal of the class. However, this class also helps these future college students with public speaking skills, research skills, and analytical thinking. They will be missed when they leave Westfield, but I look forward to hearing about the wonderful things they will accomplish in the future."



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