Easthampton High’s ‘We the People’ program brings home another national award

  • Easthampton High School students after winning the “We the People” state championship in late January for the fourth year in a row. Last month, students went on to win a divisional award at the national level. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • —CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/10/2021 8:29:49 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Student competitors from Easthampton High School students had one of their highest-ranking years at the national “We the People” civics competition held late last month, bringing home a divisional award.

Though students this year faced additional difficulties posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the team continued to excel at the national level, which Easthampton High School students have frequented for the past decade.

Despite a record of success, the divisional win still came as a welcome surprise to students who spoke with the Gazette.

“We were not expecting to win at all,” said Abel DeBerry, a junior on the team. “We were watching all the awards, then Easthampton High School came up.”

Junior Shane Cudworth, another member of the team, had a similar reaction.

“It was something we weren’t expecting,” Cudworth said. “The Easthampton team hasn’t won a division award until this year, so it was really showing how much we are a team.”

Over the years, Easthampton High students have consistently risen high in the competition: The team won the program’s state championship for the fourth year in a row in January, in addition to another state win in 2012, and has previously won national unit awards, which are a level down from the divisional win. In 2020, the team won the overall national championship.

This year, the team added a divisional award to its list of achievements for the first time. In addition to the competition for the national title, the 50-plus competing teams are split into four divisions, which are loosely assigned on a regional basis, and the top competitor from each of these four groups are recognized.

The national civics program, run by the Center for Civic Education, tests students on their understanding of the U.S. Constitution and legal principles. Over the course of the class, students closely study the Constitution and case laws, and are assigned to individual units focused on specific topics. In competition, students testify before judges as a panel in a simulated congressional hearing.

Since history and government teacher Kelley Brown began teaching the class in 2011, the Easthampton High team has gained a reputation not only for its success, but for the sense of community it fosters among the teammates. This sense of connection often lasts beyond the competition itself: Every year, former competitors will come back to serve as mentors to the current team.

These mentors also play an instrumental role in the team’s success, said senior Zac Clapp.

“They know an amazing amount of stuff,” Clapp said. “It was super impressive, and they were great teachers.”

Cudworth agreed, noting that “a lot of people in the background” helped the team achieve success.

The students also credit Brown as a major influence in driving the team toward success in the competition and among themselves.

While preparing for the competition on an all-remote basis posed challenges, Brown “really kept the entire team together when we were online,” Cudworth said.

“It really made me want to continue to come to class and do outside meetings,” Cudworth added, “because she really fostered an environment that made it feel like a community.”

Brown, meanwhile, credits her students for their dedication and the extra work they had to put in due to a smaller class size than usual, as well as the virtual format of this year’s class and competition.

“So many of them had to do double the work because of the group’s size,” Brown said. Eleven students participated this year, while a team of 18 is ideal.

Students also continued to work hard despite being unable to enjoy traditional experiences such as going to Washington, D.C. for the national competition. During April break, students and mentors met daily for three hours to prepare for the fast-approaching competition.

“I’m so proud of not only this year’s group,” Brown said, “but of the mentors who worked with them and all the hard work of my previous classes to build such an incredible program.”

Support from the community at large also bolsters the team, she said.

With dozens of public and private schools competing in the annual competition, Brown said that efforts from students and their supporters has solidified the team’s reputation for success.

“The fact that we continue to come back with awards and hold our own is really exciting,” Brown said.

Though this year’s competition is over, the class’s work isn’t finished. Some students begin competing as juniors then return as mentors during their senior year, or after they’ve graduated.

“We may be done competing, but our journey and time with the We The People team certainly isn’t over,” said Cudworth, who plans to rejoin the class as a mentor next year.

The class is also working on a voter registration drive, which they will hold at the high school beginning next Wednesday. For the following week, the class will help students pre-register or register to vote during lunch. In Massachusetts, 16- and 17-year-olds can pre-register to vote, meaning they will automatically be added to the voter rolls when they turn 18.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.
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