Capitol Hill Students Make National Competition

Posted April 21, 2010 at 4:40pm

About 1,200 high school students from around the country will descend on the Crystal Gateway Marriott this weekend in a quest to answer questions such as, “In what ways did the Renaissance and the Reformation change people’s thinking about the concepts of the individual and of society?” Among those groups of hyperachieving teenagers for the national “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution” competition will be an upstart team from the District of Columbia.

The Capitol Hill campus of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy, a high school located at 709 12th St. SE, is one of four middle and high schools in the Chavez charter school network in Washington. The first opened in 1998 with the goal of preparing D.C. students for a lifetime of civic engagement. All of its graduating seniors are accepted into college, and many consider careers in public service.

This year the school made participation in “We the People” classes a requirement for seniors. A curriculum developed by the Center for Civic Education and funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, “We the People” educates students from elementary through high school about the Constitution and American government. High school students get a little extra incentive, though.

Every year since 1987, teenagers from all 50 states (and the Northern Mariana Islands) have participated in mock Congressional hearings. The hearings begin with a four-minute opening statement and continue to six minutes of questions from a panel of judges. They’re scored on a 60-point scale based on criteria of constitutional application, reasoning, participation, supporting evidence, understanding and responsiveness. In some states there is rigorous competition to get to the national contest; in others it is less competitive. Questions get harder at each level, culminating with the questions that students will answer this weekend.

The Chavez students practiced at an intraschool contest and then competed in their first District-wide contest at the end of January. Winning was a watershed moment for them, said Julie Harris, whose job at Chavez is integrating public policy issues into the curriculum. Many of the students had never won anything before the intraschool contest, and they wore their medals to school the next day with pride. Before they got their final scores at the District competition, they reflected on the way the contest had pushed them and had brought the students together with the adults who helped them prepare, ranging from teachers from other disciplines at the school to their parents to law students from George Washington University.

“The fact that we really believe in them I think is kind of overwhelming for them as well,” Harris said.

Lawrence Chambers, 22, a student at Howard University, competed in the national competition as part of a team from Thurgood Marshall Academy in 2004. He said the contest opened his eyes to what people from other parts of the country are like.

“People who come from Washington, D.C., are not really exposed to other ethnicities, so when I went there, I saw all types of ethnicities, and I saw we had a lot in common,” he recalled, adding that he’s still in touch with a couple of students he met then.

Among “We the People” alumni are a number of Congressional and federal agency employees. Justin Rydstrom, a 1995 competitor from New Hampshire, works on the program at the Center for Civic Education and coordinated the District competition.

Judges nominated by teams in every state will score teams all day Saturday and Sunday in Arlington. On Monday, the top 10 teams will contend for victory at the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Winners will be recognized at an awards banquet at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. Despite the long odds, Chavez senior Jason Allen, 17, is confident his team will be there.

“We’re going all the way,” he said. “That’s our goal.”