By Kathie Ragsdale
Jubilant students from Hollis Brookline High School were all smiles as they hoisted a trophy signifying their first-place finish at this year’s “We the People” state finals held at the State Legislative Office Building Jan. 10.
Teacher Trevor Duval, who coached the winning students, said it was especially gratifying to edge out arch-rival Milford High School, which has won 18 state finals in the last 22 years under the direction of teacher Dave Alcox, a friend and former colleague of Duval’s.
His students, Duval said, were “quite giddy” over the win.
A program of the national Center for Civic Education, We the People has been sponsored by the New Hampshire Bar Association since 1987, according to Robin E. Knippers, the Bar’s Law Related Education coordinator.
The program seeks to build students’ understanding of the institutions of American constitutional democracy while allowing them to explore the contemporary relevance of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. A comprehensive curriculum is available for grades four through 12 at schools that choose to offer the program.
The culminating exercise is a mock congressional hearing in which students appear before a panel of judges to demonstrate their expertise in six units of study on such topics as the philosophical and historical foundations of the American political system and how the principles in the Constitution have shaped American institutions and practices.
High school students participate in district hearings and then state finals, where this year 18 judges – most of them members of the Bar – rotated among rooms to hear students address a question for four minutes, then join in back-and-forth discussion with judges for another six minutes, according to Knippers.
Second-place finisher was Milford High School, while John Stark Regional High School, under the direction of teacher Dan Marcus, took third place.
The program “gives kids opportunities to get engaged and to foster their curiosity and be able to develop themselves into civically oriented citizens that are arguably going to be engaged the rest of their lives,” says Alcox, who will be retiring at the end of this school year. “It’s not designed for the kid who wants to go into government but for the kid who wants to be a better citizen.”
Attorney Howard Zibel, whom Knippers calls “kind of like the grandfather of We the People,” has been judging the hearings more than 30 years, since the program started as the National Bicentennial Constitution and Bill of Rights competition and he was a national judge.
“Civic education generally is something we as a society, an American society, has fallen short on,” Zibel says. “We don’t do it well. The We the People program provides a context for that civic education which is wonderfully challenging… Some of these kids get an understanding that’s beyond most people and probably beyond most lawyers.”
Several judges for the hearings have volunteered for the program for years, according to Knippers, and this year’s roster included former We the People student participants – Alexander W. Campbell, Shawn M. Tanguay, Patrick J. Queenan and Israel Piedra.
Past participants have also helped grow the program, Alcox says.
“We’ve got so many alumni who are doing really cool things,” he explains. “We’ll meet with an alumnus and he might say, ‘Look, I’m working on Capitol Hill and I’m just six years older than you.’”
Knippers, likewise, says “students who go through the program are more apt to vote but beyond that there are several students who are actually working down on the Hill in D.C., so these kids become movers and shakers.”
The awards ceremony featured remarks from several notables in New Hampshire’s legal community, including New Hampshire Bar Association President Edward D. Philpot, who thanked participating attorneys, Superior Court Justice Martin Honingberg and Knippers for their help and support. NHPR’s Civics 101 podcast producers Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy also served as judges and timers.
Zibel also spoke, as did Jennifer A. Eber, who chairs the Bar’s Law Related Education Committee.
Eber received another honor from her fellow judges, who annually select one of their number to go on to participate in the national finals. They chose her this year.
Knippers says volunteers are always needed to act as facilitators, timers, and judges for the program.
Says Alcox, “I think what really a is plus for the Bar members is that they can get involved and be judges or scorers at regional or state competitions and it’s an absolute shot in the arm for anyone who loves civic education. A lot of the lawyers come back year after year because they just love the program.”
“You get more back than you give,” agrees Zibel. “You leave those hearings saying, ‘We’re in good hands for the future.’”
Winning coach Duval also says that, because of the program, his students “have become better at public speaking, at analysis, using evidence and citing multiple sources.”
Duval says the team is not going on to national finals because of conflicts with exam week. He adds that he’s still basking over the win at state finals but notes that winning any future state finals won’t be the same without the retiring Alcox as a competitor.
“It would be like seeing the Patriots win the Super Bowl after Brady and Belichick have left,” he says. “Dave is like Bellichick.”
The 22 students on Hollis Brookline’s winning team included Harry Bates, Henri Boudreau, Aaron Brown, Victoria Bruzik, Gillian Campbell, Aidan Chretien, Caleb Clark, Lily Coady, Laura Considine, Ryan Coutu, Austin Etchells, Joshua Ide, Lily Jackson, Mary Martin, Ian McNabb, Noah Penasack, Hannah Riseman, Emma Ruvido, Nate Sartell, Morgan Sattler, Sammie Sheppard and Maxwell Stapelfeld.
Milford High fielded 18 students, including Lauren Auger, Elaine Danas, Jade, De Leon, Jillian Dube, Abby Forrence, Matt Hannon, Jack Hansen, Jordan King, Nazarii Klymok, Paige Long, Brian Meldrum, Cameron Mitchell, Mackenzie O’Connor, James Oprey, Katherine Raiano, Sophia Renda, Noah Santos and Veronica Sillerico.
The 16 students on the John Stark team were Quinn Antle, Victoria Bulcock, Nathan Chasse, Andra Dagenais, Victoria Drake, Avery Forrestall, Delaney Forrestall, Jacob Earside, Margaret Giarardet, Lauren Guerrette, Julian Henry, Hailey McKillop, Brianna Meisser, Jessica Nitzschke, Stephanie Rodonis and Carson Woodward.
Anyone interested in LRE may contact Robin Knippers at email@example.com or 603-715-3259.