By JENNA LOUGHLIN
Special to the OBSERVER
WESTFIELD - The Constitution of the United States of America is the document which defines the rules and regulations of how the country is run.
Students from Westfield Academy and Central School recently finished in third place at the New York State’s We the People competition in Albany. Pictured, from left, in the front row: Emily Parker; Lexie Momberger; Jade Gelsimino; Caitlin Koerner; Jordan Issler; Haleigh Hoebener; and Rachel Quagliana. From left in the middle row: Carly Backus; Don Wood III; Alec Freyn; Garrett Grant; Andrew Abbey; Kelsey DeVaul; Chelsea Poletto; Spencer Harris; and Joe Neratko. From left in the back row: Marcus Jopek; Nate Harp; Iain Cockram; Jamie VandeVelde; Joseph Marshall; and WACS Social Studies Teacher Greg Birner.
While the over 220-year-old document is taught to all high school students, few study it as in depth as those in Westfield Academy and Central School Social Studies teacher Greg Birner's class. In fact, his students are so knowledgeable about the Constitution, 21 of them placed third in the We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution state competition held in Albany on Jan. 14 and were ultimately chosen last week to be the team representing New York State at the 25th annual National Finals April 27 through May 1 in Washington, D.C.
"They did awesome this year," Birner said. "They're the ones who put in the hard work."
At the state competition, WACS - the only team in the competition from west of Syracuse - finished third out of four teams in a smaller-than-usual field by outscoring typical powerhouse Clarkstown High School South from West Nyack. As a group, students from WACS scored 719 points, while first place finisher Half Hollow Hills East from Dix Hills on Long Island scored 791 points. Edward R. Murrow from Brooklyn finished second. The third place finish is the best Westfield has ever done in the 10 years it has been competing at We the People. Additionally, the group of Iain Cockram, Alec Freyn and Don Wood III finished first in their unit out of all four schools.
"I thought it was cool to be the best in the state at something," Cockram said.
"It was really surprising because a lot of our competition are law prep schools and we're just a public school from Western New York," Freyn said.
"We can compete in a state level in Westfield," Wood said.
In fact, Westfield's performance was so impressive, Birner received emails from state representatives complimenting the team's performance and ultimately resulted in Westfield being selected as the team to represent New York at the National finals.
"It's nice to know we didn't do anything in vain," Markus Jopek said of the recognition.
"I would put this group of kids up against any group of kids in Western New York and say that these kids are civic minded and have probably more government knowledge than most kids in Western New York besides Syracuse because this program is so rigorous," Birner said.
The trick now is for the students interested in competing in Washington, D.C. to raise $1,000 each in order to attend. With no money in the budget, Birner received permission from the WACS Board of Education to attend the competition as long as the money can be raised in time. At the meeting, board member and father of one of the competitors, Steve Cockram, and another competitor's father, Don Wood, both said they would be willing to pay significant portions of the cost of sending their children and Cockram added he knew of other parents willing to do the same.
"I've definitely been told by people in the community that we should find a way to fund it and do it," Birner said. "I think that experience of going to Washington D.C. and doing this all over again ... it could be the experience of experiences."
According to Interim Superintendent Margaret Sauer, as of Tuesday, Feb. 21, parents had already pledged $5,000 toward the $12,000 to $14,000 to be raised and other donations have also been pledged, including $2,000 from lawyers in Albany. Additionally, board member Tony Pisicoli said he knew of several community organizations which have set aside money for this type of situation. Sauer and Birner are both hopeful the community will chip in to help send the 12 to 14 students to the competition.
"People are really excited," Sauer said. "It's just an incredible honor."
"It's more than just the competition," Birner said. "It's about rewarding the kids."
Anyone interested in donating to the fund may send a check made out to "WACS We the People account" to WACS Treasurer, 203 East Main Street, Westfield, N.Y. 14787. Those with questions can call WACS Secondary Principal Ivana Hite or Sauer at 326-2151. The deadline for donations is March 29.
As for the students, even with the difficult task of intensive studying and preparation, they enjoyed both learning about the Constitution and competing in front of the two to three judge panel at the state competition.
"I thought it was really cool to be able to know what we were talking about and be on the same level with (the judges) as high school students because they've gone through so much more education than what we've gone through," Kelsey DeVaul said.
"Actually shaking hands with the judges and getting their response to everything that we prepared for was a much greater reward than an A in class," Freyn said.
"I think it teaches professionalism also," Iain Cockram said. "You have to be a real professional and be on the level of the judges. ...You can't just say whatever you want to. You have to have reasonable thinking behind it. That's one of the advantages of this class, it helps you think a lot better."
Other students also commented on what the Birner's class and the competition has taught them about the United States' government and how it has prepared them for the next step, college.
"I'm personally very interested in politics and government," Jade Gelsimino said. "It's something that I thought was interesting and that wanted to do. I definitely understand how everything works a lot better now and I feel that in politics ... that I better know what they're talking about, especially with the election going on right now."
Plus it looks good on a college application, she added.
"I was looking forward to something that would challenge ... me," Garrett Grant said. "You have to step up for this competition and be more intellectual than I've had to be for my previous social studies classes. I feel like it really improved ... my knowledge of the American government, Constitution and also it helped with talking to judges. It prepares you for job interviews and college interviews. It's just a good experience."
"It's not just digest some information and throw it back on a test," Freyn said. "We prepared for months and gained a wealth of knowledge that we used in the competition."
Don Wood III, the only junior from the Westfield team, said he watched President Barack Obama's Google+ Hang Out on YouTube because of the interest in government he has gained from the class.
"I'm a little more interested in our government now," he said. "I'm more active as a citizen."
"It kind of helped me with my public speaking," Jopek said. "I've also done a few other things, I've met with Congressman Higgins, I've done a few public speaking things and it's really helped me gain a little more confidence in myself."
"The intensity of the research and the writing of speeches ... was more collegiate," Freyn said. "It prepares you for college classes I think really well."
"This class also forces you to understand the multiple sides of our government and the different political parties ... that way you know where you can stand," DeVaul said. "It forces you to get more in depth understanding ... and see more sides than what you may personally believe or understand."
"I think a lot of the time with our questions we had to interpret (the Constitution) differently and sometimes our teammates would interpret it differently so you kind of realize what the other sides are thinking," Lexie Momberger said. "I think it make you more sensitive to the other side. But also you know if they're saying something wrong."
The students also commented on what it was like to be a small fish swimming with the big sharks, coming from a small, public school and competing against large, well funded, pre-law schools from downstate.
"I think, as a whole, it was cool to be able to come from a small school and compete with these other pretty big schools from around the state," Wood said. "That was I pretty big accomplishment I think. ... It was nice to have the opportunity to do all this in Westfield."
"It's strange coming from such a small area and being able to accomplish that," Grant said. "Sometimes you get stuck in the small town. When you're out there with big schools, I really appreciate that personally because there's just so much more I think than what people in Westfield or other small towns realize. The opportunity to do this just shows you more."
"I thought it was really cool to have this experience because, looking at the other schools that competed, they're such big schools," DeVaul said. "They had so many more people to pick from for that one class and our school here is so small, but these are the kids that got picked and being able to go on that opportunity, have this experience and show those bigger schools that something cool does come from small town. We beat one of the bigger schools and I think that leaves something to be said for small towns, that just because you don't have a huge hand-picked selection doesn't mean that you can't have something great come from it."
Overall, the students felt they would walk away from this class and this experience with important information for their everyday lives.
"This is knowledge that everyone should know," Gelsimino said. "Everyone should know how their government works."
"It makes you appreciate the system of government that we have with the freedoms," Grant said. "It kind of encourages me to definitely want to vote in the next election when I can and just be more involved because now you kind of have a good understanding of how it works and it just makes you want to be a part of the system more."
"I just feel really grateful to our community and our school for supporting this program because, especially this year, we're going on so many trips and you have to pay for them whereas this is budgeted," Carly Backus said. "It's nice to know we are of value, that they care enough to allow us to have such a great opportunity."
In the state competition, the larger group was broken up into six units, each tasked with a different focus regarding the Constitution. Unit One was tasked with answering, "How would you distinguish between a government with a constitution and a constitutional government? Why is that distinction important?" Westfield's Unit One, consisting of Iain Cockram, Alec Freyn and Don Wood III, took first place among the four schools.
Unit Two was asked, "The Articles of Confederation reflected a distrust of a strong national government. What were the historical and philosophical reasons for this distrust?" Westfield's Unit Two, consisting of Kelsey DeVaul, Spencer Harris and Jamie VandeVelde, took third.
Unit Three's question was, "'The weakening of the older social hierarchy and the erosion of the traditional belief in elite rule made the rise of political parties both necessary and possible.' Do you agree or disagree with this opinion recently expressed by an American scholar? What evidence can you offer to support your position?" Westfield's Unit Three, consisting of Andrew Abbey, Jordan Issler, Caitlin Koerner and Joseph Marshall, took second place.
Unit Four had to answer, "Compare the U.S. Congress with the British Parliament. In what ways are they alike? In what important ways are they different?" Westfield's Unit Four, consisting of Carly Backus, Jade Gelsimino, Lexie Momberger and Emily Parker, took second place.
Unit Five was asked, "How do the Fifth and Sixth Amendments protect the rights of criminal defendants?" Westfield's Unit Five, consisting of Haleigh Hoebener, Markus Jopek, Chelsea Poletto and Rachel Quagliana, took fourth.
Finally, Unit Six's question was "How would you explain federalism and why do you think many countries have adopted variations of the American model of federalism?" Westfield's Unit Six, consisting of Garrett Grant, Nate Harp and Joseph Neratko, took fourth.
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