WESTFIELD – As the sun set on another school year, some of this year’s Westfield Academy and Central School graduates are moving on with some extra preparation for the world beyond high school.
Once again, a group of WACS students took part in the New York State We the People competition. This year, the competition was harder and the scoring was tighter, but the Westfield students still gained skills, knowledge and experiences to aid them in college and life.
The Westfield team, once again coached by WACS social studies teacher Greg Birner, consisted of Kayla Bentham, Ralph Bohall, Danielle Flexer, Chloe Forsell, Kristin Grohol, Rebekah Herr, Sarah Kelly, Nina Manzella, Lee Mason, Gregory Momberger, Hillary Nelson, Dakota Pramesa, Jamie Thompson, Daniel Tofil and Miranda Warner. Kenny Wood, who competed last year as a junior, went with this year’s group for moral support, helped the students with anxiety and let them know what to expect.
“They were a really solid group,” Birner said.
Westfield finished fifth out of six teams, with 852 out of 1,080 possible points. However, this was one of the strongest fields ever at the state competition with only 133 points separating the first place and sixth place teams, and the first place team finished with 955 total points.
“They really did an awesome job,” Birner said. “Westfield can be proud of this group for sure.”
Birner thought it was the best performance from Unit One through Unit Six he has seen in his years of coaching Westfield teams. There was one unit, Unit Two consisting of Bentham, Thompson and Tofil, which took first place with 170 out of 180 possible points, thus making it the first back-to-back years a Westfield unit has taken first place at the competition.
At Westfield High School, Birner offers a class about the U.S. Constitution with the focus of competing in this annual event. Students study the Constitution in depth, prepare answers to questions as units of three and then present those answers to judges, who range from justices to lawyers to politicians to historians. The judges then ask the students questions about their topic and answer, which the students have to respond to in the moment – no notes, no references, just the knowledge in their heads.
“The reward isn’t first place,” Birner said. “The reward is that you just talked about the Constitution with college professors, with attorneys. … That’s the reward. That’s the trophy.”
Some of the last names of the participating students may sound familiar to those of past We the People competitors, and this is no coincidence. Manzella has two older siblings who participated in past competitions and is the reason she decided to take the class herself.
“They had a lot of fun in (the class) and they learned a lot,” Manzella said. “It was really cool to be able to learn about the Constitution.”
Momberger also had a sibling who took Birner’s class in the past and enjoyed the experience.
“I think we loved it the same as they did,” Momberger said. “It was a lot of fun and a lot of good information.”
“It let’s me know I’m doing something right,” Birner said of starting to get siblings of former students. “I’m going to be teaching this class until I retire, as long as they’ll have me here and as long as they’ll keep the course here. It’s my ‘Mona Lisa,’ this class. I love this We the People course.”
Others took the class for the skills and knowledge they would learn to help them going forward, including college for Tofil. For Herr, she sees herself using and applying what she learned her whole life, especially the public speaking skills. Manzella added the competitors from Westfield are now in the top 10 percent of the nation who know about the Constitution.
This year’s group of students was lucky to attend the competition. There was no money for We the People in the district’s 2012-13 budget as the program looked like it was being cut at the state level, so all the funds necessary for the students to go were donated.
However, Birner’s fight to continue the class and the opportunity for the students showed them how much he cares about what he’s teaching and made them more motivated to do well and work harder.
“He’s willing to put all the work into it, so we should too,” Grohol said. “It’s nice to see someone who is so passionate.”
“It’s really inspirational for us to see someone who’s so into what they’re doing,” Nelson said.
The smaller, more intimate setting of the class made students feel more involved in what they were learning about, even like Birner was learning with them at times.
As to why studying the Constitution is so important, Momberger believes it’s obvious.
“Other than the amendment system, it’s stayed true to this day,” he said. “It’s been able to change with time.
“It’s just a great thing to learn about how your country started,” Momberger said.
Manzella said it is nice to have an advantage by knowing so much about the Constitution because there are so many people in politics making statements and decisions based on what they hear and making assumptions about what is or is not constitutional.
The Constitution is still relevant today, Forsell said, and to understand anything in politics, knowledge of the document is necessary. Grohol thinks the relevance it still has today is impressive.
“I think it’s important, especially for kids our age, to learn more about it because we’re the future generation coming up here and we have a … large voice so we should know about things before we push our opinions on people,” Kelly said.
In terms of politics today, Mason said he has a deeper understanding of how things work and what is being talked about.
Momberger brought up actually knowing what the word “sequester” means.
Grohol said the class watched and discussed the presidential debates in the fall of 2012 and actually understood what the candidates were talking about, which she wouldn’t have before taking the class.
“I feel like it makes it like you want to know about what’s going on in politics,” Forsell said. “Like now you realize the importance of it.”
“It makes you realize being the president or being high up in government, it’s not an easy job … and you’re going to make mistakes no matter who you are, whether you’re Democrat or Republican,” Nelson said.
Taking the class also made the students realize the importance of U.S. history and politics and well as giving them an understanding as to why things happen.
“A lot of times we wonder why we learn history, because that’s in the past,” Momberger said. “By learning the Constitution, it gives us something applicable that we can use today to see what the events of the past, how they shaped our future through this document.”
Learning about the Constitution has also made many of the students want to become more involved citizens as well as educate others about what they know. It also helped cut through the bias on TV news and figure out what is true.
For Mason, it has also shown him the true power of the presidency, and he gets frustrated at people who blame the office for not fixing problems.
“Going through this class you realize the president doesn’t have the absolute power to control everything,” he said.
“You can’t rely on one man to change the entire country,” Warner said.
“It shows you that the American people also have a lot to do with it too,” Kelly said.
What surprised the students was not necessarily what they learned about the Constitution, but about how much they themselves could do and study.
Even with all the nerves and all the studying and all the preparation and all the hard work, every single student raised their hand when asked who would take the class again.
“If the kids are working this hard … to prepare for this and then at the end of the day passing word on to the other groups like, ‘You’ve got to get in on this,’ then you’re doing something right,” Birner said. “You’re getting kids to want an education.”
Once again, the students were very thankful and appreciative to the community for its support as well as all the people and businesses that contributed financially, thus allowing them to compete. They could not have asked for a better time, and Kelly said it was nice getting recognition for and seeing pride in intelligence
“Without the community, we wouldn’t have been able to go,” Nelson said. “They (the community) wanted us to do well.”
“I can’t thank the community enough,” Birner said. “I’m proud to be a teacher at Westfield, that they (the community) can see the relevance of a good education.”