CHEYENNE – Morgan Carey didn’t get a lot of sleep Sunday night.
That’s because Carey, 18, Paige Ricketts, 16, and Brooklynn Toon, 17 – all Advanced Placement U.S. Government students at Cheyenne East High – stayed up most of the evening cramming for a civics exam unlike any other: the state finals for “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution.”
Since 1987, the We the People program has engaged students across the country in civic education. Students are given possible questions ahead of time and spend months preparing for a district, and then state competition.
Split into teams of three to four, about two dozen high-schoolers from East High competed in the state finals Monday morning at the state Capitol, along with students from five other schools throughout the state. The top two winners of the state competition advance to the final, national round.
“What challenges might face American constitutional democracy in the 21st century?” was the broad theme Carey, Ricketts and Toon were ready to discuss for 10 minutes in a Capitol committee room Monday. The judges posed a question, the team had four minutes to deliver a prepared statement, which was followed by six more minutes of follow-up questions and brief feedback. They had notes in front of them, but there was no time to fumble through them looking for answers.
But the trio, each of whom was wearing pink hair ribbons to show their enthusiasm for the event, was ready. Since last fall, they’d met up nearly every Monday afternoon at the public library to review constitutional documents and legal briefs. They even made a few trips to the state Supreme Court’s law library to read some of the opinions in full.
“It gave us a lot more context than the summaries we could find online,” Carey said.
Armed with highlighted notecards, Carey and her two classmates settled at the podium before the panel of volunteer judges – which included state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow – walked in to start the clock. Students are evaluated on their application of constitutional and historical materials; understanding the question; reasoning; supportive evidence; responsiveness and participation.
The competition “puts students in touch with historical documents that underpin our society, culture and government. This is the heart of civics education,” said Balow, who coached a We The People team when she worked at a school in Hulett. “The unfortunate part is that not all students have access to it.”
In Cheyenne, the program isn’t required at the school level, but is for all students taking AP U.S. government with Mark Seivley, who has coached We the People teams for the better part of the past two decades.
“These kids are almost twice as likely to be involved in politics and government as those that don’t participate in the program,” Seivley said. “Not only that, but it influences people around them. They’re going to talk about things and be able to explain things that most Americans can’t.”
Indeed, Carey and her classmates had a thoughtful response to the judges’ questions Monday, which focused on how populism shapes public policy and how they’ve seen it play it out in schools.
“Voting for homecoming court,” Toon, said, suggesting that the vote can be a popularity contest in which the will of the powerful might trump the wishes of the broader student body.
Ricketts, Toon’s teammate, countered that example, suggesting that sometimes voters might rally around an underdog to make a statement. Months of dissecting both sides of an argument left Toon, who wants to major in criminal justice, with “a well-rounded view of politics.”
When it came time to announce the winners, one night of missed sleep paid off: the judges recognized Carey’s team as having the strongest performance of any of East’s participants.
East High placed fifth in the state competition and didn’t advance to the final round. Sheridan High won first place, and Jackson High won runner-up. Both schools will advance to the national finals in April.
Nonetheless, Carey said the competition not only “put things in perspective,” but has also energized her about voting – for the first time – in the upcoming presidential election.