KENT COUNTY, MI – Students at East Kentwood High School travel to Washington DC after taking first place in the ‘We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution’ state finals to compete for a national title.
This month’s event included simulated congressional hearings. During the hearings, students testify before a panel of judges who serve as members of Congress to demonstrate their knowledge of constitutional principles.
Kentwood’s team of 21 seniors won Jan. 9 after competing against six other high school teams from across the state, including East Grand Rapids and Hudsonville at Michigan State University College of Law.
The hearings are typically judged by law professors, attorneys and politicians, said Justin Robbins, instructor and coach of Kentwood’s We The People team.
Developed by the Michigan Center for Civic Education, the We The People: The Citizen and The Constitution program focuses on teaching the history and principles of constitutional democracy in the United States. Students study a six-part curriculum and then test their knowledge in state and national mock hearings once a year.
The group says its primary goal is to “promote civic competence, responsibility, appreciation and enthusiasm for the Constitution and our societal issues among the country’s upper elementary and secondary school students.”
The seniors enrolled in Robbins’ sixth-grade American Political Thought class deserve credit for the class, but attending We The People is more of an extracurricular activity, Robbins explained.
“Unlike other courses where a study guide is attached and you get an individual grade, this is different. The motivation is, ‘We’re going to show that publicly, and strangers are going to ask us things and score us,’ and they’re the kind of kids who want to show themselves well in that environment.”
Students sign up for hours of practice and often stay after school to work with coaches on their writing, presentation, and research skills. The team has five full-time coaches who volunteer to help the team, including a retired teacher and a local defender, Robbins said.
Kent County Attorney Chris Becker even volunteers his time to assess the team’s practice runs ahead of the mock congressional hearing. Becker himself participated in the We The People program as a high school student while visiting East Kentwood, Robbins said.
In preparation for this year’s state finals competitions, the East Kentwood team spent more than 160 hours practicing their skills in December alone, Robbins said. The students even got together over the winter break for hours of study and preparation together.
“I think the Kent District Library probably had a group in their study room every day that it was open during recess,” Robbins said. “I was really proud of them for their resilience and I’m really pleased that they paid off in that regard.”
In April, Team Michigan will be represented at the We The People National Finals Championship at the National Conference Center in Leesburg, Virginia.
This is the first time East Kentwood has won first place in the state finals since 2010, Robbins said. The team has had the opportunity to enter the national championships as a “wild card” team a number of times over the past few years by finishing second at East Grand Rapids High School.
After years of finishing second, Robbins said the team went flat out this year to try and win the competition.
“I remember chasing after them in early December and saying they didn’t have enough training sessions,” the coach said. “By Sunday evening they had everything planned through the new year and all six units. It was nice of them to say, ‘No, we want to be good at it.’”
On the bus ride home from the state finals, the students spent all their time playing tunes on the radio and singing songs to celebrate their win, Robbins said.
“It was cool to see that they finally got paid for all that work,” he said.
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