A dynasty continues: Easthampton High’s We the People class wins 7th state competition

  • Easthampton High School teacher Kelley Brown, who coaches the school’s We The People team, works with, from left, Maria Belfakih, Abigail Dean and Ana Growhoski last week as they think through a question on the separation of church and state. The team won its seventh state title late last month and will head to nationals in Washington, D.C. this spring. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Easthampton High School student Ava Stuart talks about her experience being on the school’s We The People team. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Chelsea Neus, 18, an Easthampton High School student in the We the People class, embraces classmate Klaudia Rivera at the We the People: The Citizen and Constitution State Finals at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate in Boston after the class took home a first-place win. SUBMITTED PHOTO BY ERIC HAYNES

  • Easthampton High School’s We the People civics class took home another first-place win on Jan. 28 at We the People: The Citizen and Constitution State Finals at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate in Boston. SUBMITTED PHOTO BY ERIC HAYNES

Staff Writer
Published: 2/6/2023 6:02:10 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Much like her peers, 17-year-old Diya Bhatia can often be found with her head glancing down at her phone sending text messages to her friends.

Unlike other typical teenagers, the subject of a majority of Bhatia’s text messages this school year revolve around the U.S. Constitution. The topic carries over into her activities throughout her daily routine.

And she’s not alone. Whether in class, out with friends, or home for the night, Bhatia and 18 other classmates in a “We the People” class at Easthampton High School find ways to talk about the national framework and constraints of government and related issues.

“I’ve been studying every single day, even on snow days. I haven’t taken one day off,” said 18-year-old Chelsea Neus.

And much like the classmates that came before them, that dedication paid off.

For the sixth year in a row, the EHS class has bested its competitors, taking home first place on Jan. 28 at the We the People: The Citizen and Constitution State Finals at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate in Boston.

The win is the school’s seventh overall.

“At states, there wasn’t a single question I hadn’t heard before,” said 17-year-old Landon Ellsworth.

The academic competition tests students on their understanding of the U.S. Constitution and legal principles and is run by the state Center for Civic Education.

EHS Principal William Evans applauded the students on their win and the amount of time and effort they put into the class. He also expressed astonishment that an entirely new group of students is able to take home another state win.

He spoke highly of the class’s instructor, longtime history and government teacher Kelley Brown, who has built the We the People program to what it is today. Brown often brings alumni, community mentors and student coaches together to create a culture of “hard work, honest and supportive feedback.”

“The students come into this class knowing full well that they will work very hard and put in a lot of hours — and then they do,” Evans said. “And in the end, they get so much more than what they put in. It’s an amazing program and we are very proud of all of these students.”

That effort has not waned as students are currently readying for the national competition in April, which will be held in Washington, D.C. There, the Easthampton class will face thousands of students from all over the country in hopes of taking home a title.

During their classroom blocks, students quiz each other on a list of sample questions that may appear at the hearing in separate groups, such as Socrates’s meaning in Plato’s book, “The Republic.” For example, students are asked:

“What does Socrates mean when he says that one of the primary characteristics of democracies is that the citizens are ‘free’ and ‘there is license in it to do whatever one wants’?”

As Brown points out, the material goes well beyond the process of a bill becoming a law.

“It’s challenging,” she said. “If there’s any goal I have for students out of this classroom, is that they can hear an opposite opinion from what they believe, that they can listen to people with whom they don’t necessarily disagree, and that they can consider other people’s opinions and really think through arguments in ways that promote civil discourse and learning.”

In 2020, EHS took home its first national win, which was held via videoconference. A year ago, the high school earned 11th place out of 47 classes in the country.

That focus and drive to win is apparent as students quote their teacher during their practices.

“As Mrs. Brown says, ‘our April 22 self will thank our today’s self,’” said 17-year-old Kaelin Damon. “Oh, and, ‘every moment wasted is a moment wasted.’”

Much like previous years, the We the People class will be raising money for their trip to Washington, D.C. through several events, including a spaghetti dinner. A GoFundMe page will also be set up.

Brown says this year’s goal will be $50,000 as it costs approximately $1,500 per student. Those wishing to donate can make checks payable to Easthampton High School and send them to: Easthampton High School, c/o Kelley Brown, We The People, 70 Williston Ave., Easthampton, MA 01027.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.
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