Easthampton High team wins national civics championship

  • Students from Easthampton High School are seen competing in the national finals of the We the People competition via Zoom. Contributed Photo

Staff Writer
Published: 5/2/2020 10:33:44 AM

EASTHAMPTON — Before this week, Easthampton High School had never finished better than 19th at the national finals for the We the People competition. Yet on Monday night, a public school team from this small city learned that they’d done the unthinkable: They had won it all. 

“Never in a million years did I think that we would be number one,” said Kelley Brown, the team’s academic adviser.

The students were also shocked by their win. None of the team members on a Thursday zoom call with the Gazette said they thought they were going to finish first.

Cylie Kirejczyk was one of those students. She said that when third place was announced, she assumed they hadn’t won anything.

“I was assuming that we got sixth or seventh,” she said.

Easthampton’s victory in this prestigious national civics competition, held annually for the 33rd time this year, was the culmination of a lot of hard work, not just from the students but also from the program’s alumni and other members of the community.

 “It felt very good to have our whole city behind us,” said student Chelsea Indyk, who noted that a neighbor put a sign of support in their yard.

Kirejczyk said the team wouldn't have won without the knowledge passed down by the program’s alumni, and fellow team member Alice Wanamaker noted the conversations team members had with local lawyers and scholars, and that those conversations were able to be cited several times during the competition.

“Which was really really cool,” Wanamaker said.

The victory came in the face of the adversity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The closure of schools in Massachusetts meant that the EHS students had to prepare for the competition at home and work with one another over Zoom.

“The work in this class just didn’t stop,” said Jonah Herman-Slaghekke. “Ms. Brown was keeping us motivated to work every day.”

The competition also took place via videoconference. Normally, it is held in the Washington, D.C. area, and students competing get a trip to the nation’s capital.

A number of schools also chose not to compete this year. While this year’s competition featured 30 schools, last year it had 56.

Brown said, however, that her students turned the adversity of the pandemic to their advantage, using the extra time on their hands to work harder. Additionally, she said that everybody being at home and dealing with the same circumstances leveled the playing field a bit.

In the We the People competition, students give opening statements on a pre-selected topic before a mock congressional committee and then answer questions on the topic.

The teams compete across six different units, which tackle topics in categories that included “What Are the Philosophical and Historical Foundations of the American Political System?” and “What Rights Does the Bill of Rights Protect?

While previous competitions had students prepare to speak on three possible topics, two of which they present on while presenting on the third if they make the top 10, the change of format for this year made it so that all teams knew what topic they’d be speaking on for each of their units. They also presented on only one topic per unit.

Before Easthampton’s win, no Massachusetts team had even cracked the top 10 in the We the People competition.

“It would have been a huge accomplishment,” Brown said of the prospect of getting 10th place.

She also said that in the western part of the United States there are elite programs for the competition and, by contrast, Easthampton’s program consists of whoever signs up.

But despite their “Hoosiers”-like victory at the national competition this year, Easthampton does have a history of success on the state level.

In the eight years that Easthampton has participated, its teams have won the state competition four times, including for a third time in a row this year. Winning a state competition qualifies a team to compete in the national contest.

Brown said this year’s team is the best she’s ever had, because it was never about any one individual on the team. Because students may compete in the competition only once, members of this year’s team will all be joining the alumni ranks next year.

After the team learned about their win, the students’ reaction was far from subdued.

“We didn’t talk for five minutes after we found out we won,” Indyk said.

Yet, that didn’t mean there was silence.

“I was bawling my eyes out screaming,” Kirejczyk said.

Wanamaker said the students stayed on the Zoom call together for about an hour. She then donned a mask and drove over to teammate Ellie Chappuis’ house, where she opened up her car doors and blasted the Taylor Swift song “Love Story,” the same song they’d played on the bus after winning the state competition.

“My poor neighbors,” Chappuis said.

The two danced 30 feet apart from each other to the song in celebration.

Alumni also drove around celebrating, including Hanna Wauczinski, Brown’s intern this year, who did some socially distant dancing with team members.

Even though the winning students didn’t get to compete in the D.C. area, Brown hopes to take them on a trip there when the pandemic restrictions have been lifted.

“If I can, I will make it happen,” she said.

Brown also said that she is in talks with public officials to do a social-distance-appropriate celebration for the students in the city, as well as a bigger celebration when social distancing measures are lifted.

“They deserve so much recognition for this accomplishment,” Brown said.

Bzera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettente.com.

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