‘We The People’

Westfield Students Take Part In Albany Competition

Sixteen WACS seniors took part in the “We The People” competition in New York City. Here they are pictured with chaperones and WACS history teacher Greg Birner (back row, far right). Submitted photo

WESTFIELD — Despite being one of the smallest schools, to take part in the annual statewide “We the People” competition in Albany, Westfield Academy and Central School students not only became better acquainted with the U.S. Constitution, but received an award for their efforts.

The WACS team, which was the only group from Western New York, place seventh out of nine schools and received a Unit 5 Presentation Award at the New York State competition on Jan. 12. The team from Half Hollow Hills won its second consecutive New York State Championship and will represent the state at the National Finals in Washington, D.C.

WACS students, under the leadership of history teacher Greg Birner, began preparing for the competition in September. The students credit their success to his guidance and inspiration.

In the past the Justice Resource Center partnered with the Law, Youth, and citizenship committee of the New York State Bar Association to offers high schools the opportunity to participate in the We the People competition.

However, the competition almost did not take place, Birner said. The New York Bar Association, which usually funds a large part of the event, cut all funding for it. A woman named Debra Lesser, who had been involved in the program since its beginning and the Justice Resource Center in NYC were able to save the program with a very small budget, he said.

The “We The People” team of Olivia Clamp, Colby Bills and Noah Knappenberger won a Unit 5 award at the competition in NYC. Submitted photo

“I thought the program was dead. Much to my delight, in May of last year, I received an e-mail that the program had been saved,” Birner said. “We competed in a NYC public school a couple of avenues away from Central Park”

Westfield has taken part in the We The People competition since 2007, Birner said. This year, the group split into six teams, each one focusing on a separate facet of the Constitution.

The students who took part in this year’s “We The People” competition were Marilynn Amborski, Jessica Lopez-Hernandez, Luke Stephenson, Carley Dougan, Tyler Miles, Bethany Schaaf, Jessica Morse, Susanna Wolfe, Bret Babcock, Noah Smith, Colby Bills, Olivia Clamp, Noah Knappenberger, Grace Bodenmiller, Grace Herr and Sarah Tilley.

Each year, it is the students who affirm the real value of the competition. Bethany Schaaf said the program is helping her to decide on her career, particularly if it involves public policy. “I feel more prepared for college after taking it because I’m now comfortable working in groups, publicly speaking, answering difficult questions, and defending my opinions with examples, she said.”

Luke Stephenson said the “We The People” program has helped him appreciate the framework of the the United States. “I discovered how unique our democracy is, how crucial civic participation’s role in our society, and how to be an good citizen informed on the policies of our great country. This class was crucial to my understanding on those topics,” he said.

Tyler Miles said it was the interaction with people, especially those involved in politics that he enjoyed the most. “My favorite part of the we the people trip was actually seeing people who have made it in politics and discussing our topics. Although we have been researching the topics it was still interesting to see their point of view,” he said. “This program has made an informed citizen about our government, voting and it’s importance.”

Jessica Morse said she was grateful to the district for continuing to offer this experience to its students.

“Westfield Academy is very unique in that it gives students an amazing opportunity…to also learn the importance of being an American citizen” she said. “I would recommend this class to all students.”

Colby Bills said the experience helped him gain confidence in himself as well as becoming a better citizen. ” I learned so much from this class, including amendments and even our rights that we are granted!” he said. “Just taking this class made be a better student too, the workload was challenge and I was scared at first to take the class but I’m extremely happy that I did.”

There were several changes in the competition this year, Birner said. Each unit was required to prepare and memorize two speeches as well as be prepared for two major topics instead of one. Because of the limited number of students taking part, two students – Bethany Schaaf and Like Stephenson – memorized four speeches, he said.

The other difference was that the final competition took place in New York City instead of Albany. Furthermore, there were no regional competitions this year. Any school district that wanted to take part could go. Nine school districts competed and Westfield was the only one located west of Syracuse.

The competiton was an excellent experience for the students, Birner said. “The journey was awesome, our students did great, and at the end of the day, I believe my students will be excellent citizens. They always make me so proud when we compete at such a high level and this year’s group did not disappoint.”

Birner said he feels the results of the competition are not nearly as important as the effect the program has on the students. “As I told one of my students that felt they under performed, it is not the competition that truly matters,” he said said. “Once they understand how the government functions and what their role is in it, they have amazing and wonderful ideas about how they will participate in the future. Here is where my students win. Here is where Westfield wins.”