Seniors in Alex Bennett’s AP Comparative Government class at Woodgrove High School are still celebrating their unexpected third-place finish in the state finals of the “We the People” Constitutional debate.
In its first entry into the rigorous debating contest, operated from President James Madison’s home, Montpelier, in Orange County, the team of Woodgrove students finished behind only Douglas S. Freeman High School, a magnet school for leadership, government and global economics in Richmond. Douglas Freeman took the top two places in the debate. Ten schools competed in the state finals, with T.C. Williams being the only other public school sending students to compete.
Bennett and Woodgrove principal William “Sam” Shipp could not have been more proud of their students’ success in their first foray.
“We’ve got a whole lot of excited students and teachers here,” Shipp said this week. Both he and Bennett said they hoped the students’ success would lead to more participation by Loudoun public schools in the debate program.
Shipp supported the venture from the beginning. “He funded the bus to take us down there and made sure I had what I needed,” Bennett said.
Bennett, a former U.S. Government teacher at Loudoun Valley High School, first got interested at the county level seven years ago and continued the program after transferring to Woodgrove.
“It was the perfect thing for us,” Bennett recalled, noting the county had switched the curriculum from AP Government to AP Comparative Government. After reviewing the adjustment in curriculum, Bennett said, “We can do this.”
Bennett said his students weren’t particularly excited at first. They’d never heard of the program and he had to convince them of the need for additional outside work.
“But they started getting excited when they had a friendly school competition with Loudoun Valley in January. Then, they really got into it,” Bennett said. Based on their results, the Woodgrove team entered—and won—the district contest in Alexandria. At that point, it was on to the state competition in Williamsburg.
To win, students had to fire off their knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and have a good understanding of judicial decisions, Bennett said—usually those of the Supreme Court.
He took a coed team of 22 seniors from Woodgrove, split into six units, composed of unequal numbers, depending on skill sets for each category. Ford Wyatt, of Waterford, was the leader of Unit 3, which finished with the highest score in its category, beating out five other teams. The team also included Brandon Cossaboon, Paige McFarland and Allison Bierman.
The students were given the questions three weeks in advance so they could prepare and research constitutional and ethical backing for their arguments. The teams were given four minutes for a prepared speech outlining their general argument, after which they had six minutes to answer a series of Constitution-based questions from a panel of judges.
The questions were thought-provoking, Wyatt said, recalling one posed to his unit: “Did the Southern States justify their decision to secede from the Union?” And “how did President Lincoln and other northerners justify treating secession as an act of Rebellion?” Points were awarded on the basis of the Constitutional evidence presented to back the students’ opinion; the strength of their arguments; presentation skills; and total unit argument, Wyatt said.
Another participant, Gus Erickson, of Waterford, said he had no doubts about the value of the experience.
“I loved it. It was really the most worthwhile, most useful and cool thing I’ve done in four years of high school,” he said.
The moot court teams at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville are generally recognized as the town’s top debaters, regularly beating teams from some of the nation’s top universities.
“I would love to take on Patrick Henry any day,” an ebullient Wyatt said when asked about the comparison.
Bennett said he wants to get more schools involved with the program. School Board member Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge), who was a judge for part of the contest, agreed.
“The event was a superb display of the students’ knowledge and understanding of the Constitution. I would strongly encourage other schools to explore opportunities to participate in this program. A comprehensive understanding of the Constitution of the United States is such an important part of our students’ civic education,” Turgeon said in an email.
For the future, Bennett and the students are setting their sights on winning the state contest. “I want to get more kids involved, both at Woodgrove and around the county; when they come into AP Government to spread the word and challenge other Loudoun schools to join,” he said, adding, “There is no better program to teach the U.S. Constitution, in my opinion.”