EHS team tops in constitutional knowledge


  • Easthampton High School juniors Charlotte Banigan-White, left, Lucas Patton and Fernando Tenesaca, all 17, study for the “We the People” competition March 16 at the school. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Easthampton High School juniors Vinnie Catalano, 17, left, Victoria Drejsa, 16, David Hunter Pelkey, 16, and Shane Gravel, 17, participate in a mock constitutional hearing in preparation for the We the People competition March 16, 2018 at the school. Class volunteer and attorney Stephen Linsky, left, and history and government teacher Kelley Brown, right, listen, at front.

  • A team of students from Easthampton High School competed in the ‘We the People’ National Finals competition during the last weekend in April 2018 in the nation's capitol. Courtesy of Easthampton High School 'We the People'—

Published: 5/6/2018 11:25:59 PM

EASTHAMPTON — A team of students from Easthampton High School competed in the “We the People” National Finals competition last weekend, winning a “best overall unit” award and schooling their competition on questions about the U.S. Constitution.

“The whole point of the competition is to teach about civics and government in a fun and interesting way,” said student Shane Gravel. “I think it did exactly that.”

The 21-student team won first place at the 2018 Massachusetts “We the People” academic contest, held in Boston at the end of January, which brought them to Washington to compete at the national level.

From delving into antifederalist objections to President James Madison’s proposed amendments to what additional rights should be added to the Constitution, the students prepared 4-minute statements to answer six complex competition questions over the weekend.

One of the questions answered by the young constitutional scholars: “To what extent, if any, do the ‘follies of democracy’ referred to by Edmund Randolph exist today?”

The students competed against 51 other teams from across the country at the National Conference Center in Leesburg, Va. They divided into six teams, or units, becoming experts on different parts of the U.S. Constitution, often studying before school, during lunch and on weekends and holidays to compete in the Constitutional Hearing competition.

Saying the students were “absolutely amazing,” EHS history teacher Kelley Brown said they presented on four out of the six questions with no notes, including answering six minutes of unknown follow-up questions.

Interested in law

Gathered in the Easthampton High School library Thursday, a little exhausted after the busy weekend, a number of the student competitors talked about their time at nationals, saying it was a great team experience that fostered a close group dynamic between them.

“I literally couldn’t pick a favorite part,” said Carly Raucher, “I’ve loved everything from last September to now.”

Many of the students took Brown’s AP U.S. history class in the fall and were inspired to participate in the academic competition and spring class because, “Ms. Brown is a really great teacher,” as Quinn LaFountain put it.

“There is a good chance Ms. Brown will cause lawyers’ salaries to greatly decrease in about 20 years because so many of us are now interested in law,” said Aidan Chappuis.

Many of the students said the competition had changed their college major and career considerations, as well as what colleges they’re looking at.

David Brakey said he thought he would go into science in college, but now he’s considering law or political science.

“I believe it will open more doors for me, career-wise,” he said, “In case I want to become president one day or something.”

Chappuis said that any field the students may choose to go into will one day collide with constitutional law in one way or another, something they learned through their extensive studies. He also said the competition had taught the students how to have civil debates, to the point where Chappuis managed a full discussion on policy in the Middle East during a chemistry class, without, he said, his teacher noticing in the slightest.

Nic Soucy said most of the students who competed are or will soon be 18, and that what they learned in the competition will also help them when it comes time to vote.

Meaningful visit

Supporters from the community gathered at 6:45 a.m. on the morning of April 27 for a surprise send-off for the students, according to Principal Kevin Burke, and the Easthampton Police Department and Easthampton Fire Department gave an escort out of Easthampton High replete with flashing lights as the students headed towards Washington.

Raucher said she was pretty sure she saw her principal waving and riding inside a fire truck during the send-off. A greeting party was back at the high school on Tuesday night to welcome the competitors home.

Brown said the students will find out where they placed in the overall competition next week. One of the Easthampton team’s units won “best overall unit” at an award ceremony on Monday night, the first time that award had been presented to a team from Massachusetts.

As well as competing, Brown said the students visited the National Archives, Library of Congress, Newseum, 9/11 Memorial, Mount Vernon, African American History Museum of the Smithsonian and the White House, and also laid a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery for Easthampton High School.

The students said visiting the nation’s capital was more meaningful now that they had developed an understanding of the foundation of U.S. democracy through their studies of the Constitution, and also said that riding the underground subway that legislators use to move around the city was a highlight of the trip.

They toured the capitol with Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s staff and met with the staff of U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield. Neal recognized the Easthampton students before Congress at the end of April, saying he wanted to acknowledge the team for their “superb dedication and accomplishments.”

“Strong civic education is the foundation of our democracy and these inspiring students have exemplified the finest qualities of informed citizenship,” Neal said.

“We the People” is a project of the California-based Center for Civic Education.

The competitors were Charlotte Banigan-White, Tierney Boyle, Ryan-James Bragg, David Brakey, Vincent Catalano, Aidan Chappuis, Carly Detmers, Victoria Drejsa, Chantel Duda, Shane Gravel, Kristin Hartley, Quinn LaFountain, Ambera Mutevelic, Shane O’Donnell, Devon Owens-Heywood, Lucas Patton, David Hunter Pelkey, Carlie Raucher, Nicolas Soucy, Fernando Tenesaca, and Dillan Wilson.

M.J. Tidwell can be reached at

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