On a roll: Easthampton High School students win fifth consecutive We the People state title 

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  • Easthampton High School juniors, from left, Jonathan Gallagher, Jeffrie Surgen and Jessica Cloutier talk about their experience being part of the school’s 2022 state champion We The People team. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Easthampton High School social studies teacher and We The People program advisor Kelley Brown talks with members of this year’s state championship team. From left are Braden Lynn, Jonathan Gallagher, Jeffrie Surgen, Jessica Cloutier, Maria Belfakih and Amelia Fiordalice, all juniors. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Easthampton High School junior Amelia Fiordalice, left, talks about her experience being part of the school’s 2022 state championship We The People team. Joining her are fellow team members, from left, Jonathan Gallagher, Jeffrie Surgen and Jessica Cloutier. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Easthampton High School junior Maria Belfakih talks about her experience being part of the school’s 2022 state championship We The People team. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Easthampton High School junior Braden Lynn talks about his experience being part of the school’s 2022 state championship We The People team. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Easthampton High School social studies teacher and We The People program adviser Kelley Brown talks with members of this year’s state championship team. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 2/6/2022 8:22:13 PM
Modified: 2/6/2022 8:20:38 PM

EASTHAMPTON — City high school students have dedicated what they describe as “thousands of hours” participating in their We the People class, both during and outside the regular school day.

In fact, 16-year-old Jonathan Gallagher said there was a two-week span where he met with members of a group from that class every single day. Even after working an eight-hour shift on a Saturday at his job at Big E’s Supermarket, he made time to talk about the U.S. Constitution.

The dedication paid off.

Gallagher and 15 of his classmates took that knowledge and understanding, and dominated at the We the People: The Citizen and Constitution state finals, taking home another first-place win. 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.

The win is Easthampton High School’s fifth in a row at the state finals and sixth overall.

History and government teacher Kelley Brown, who leads the course, says the school’s winning streak began when she began to teach the topic as a separate class that has a competition at the end, rather than an add-on to AP classes.

“I felt like (the way I was doing it previously) excluded students who would maybe otherwise take the course,” Brown explained. “Now, you learn the curriculum and have the opportunity to engage in these authentic assessments the whole time. From day one, we have a candy bar hearing. You have to convince us what candy best represents America.”

Now, the team of 16 students supported by Brown, Molly Coates, a student-teacher from Springfield College and three student-coaches will represent Massachusetts in the national finals. There, approximately 1,000 students from 48 classes will participate in 648 half-hour Zoom hearings from April 22-26.

The nationwide civics program is run by the Center for Civic Education in Calabasas, California, and involves students giving opening statements in front of mock congressional committees on myriad Constitution-related topics. At the competition, students also field questions from the committee, such as: “In what ways, if any, are the concepts of civic virtue in the classical Republican tradition and private morality in the Judeo–Christian tradition similar or different?”

Easthampton High School Principal William Evans said that what’s particularly impressive about the consecutive wins for the school is the fact that the school has a different team each year.

“It’s not just one team that continues to carry the banner. It’s a completely different team each year,” Evans said. “The level of community participation is also very impressive. We have alumni, graduates and members of the community coming in to coach — all by volunteer — it’s just astounding. Kelley has built a community around this program.”

And Brown’s students agree with Evans’ assessment, boasting of her passion for the program. In a recent interview with the Gazette, the winning team members could be heard citing U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have affected their way of thinking, such as the way the decision from Brandenburg v. Ohio interpreted the First Amendment. In the next breath, 17-year-old Brayden Lynn began talking about the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929, which set the maximum number of representatives in the House of Representatives to 435. As he spoke, his classmates would support his thought process and chime in with additional details.

“This really grinds my gears,” Lynn said. “In the early days, it was one per 30,000. That’s how many people our representative represented. Our state Rep. Dan Carey, how many does he represent? One in 45,000. And he says that’s too much. Our representatives in Congress represent 700,000 people. There is no way one person can represent 700,000 people effectively. This really goes against what our founders had in mind.”

As students continued to engage in a lively discussion, many reiterated the fact that this passion they exhibited didn’t exist prior to the class.

“I won’t have a career based on what I’m learning in this class, but as a citizen, I’m learning what I need to know. If someone has an opinion that I agree with, I’m able to strongly represent what I believe in,” said 17-year-old Amelia Fiordalice.

The team is now gearing up for the national finals, which are traditionally held in Washington. Although the competition will be held virtually this year, Brown says her class still intends to head south, experience the nation’s capital and hopefully take home a national win as they did in 2020. As such, the We the People class will be holding events to fundraise for the trip and a GoFundMe page will be forthcoming.

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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