Grant High School has won the state “We the People” competition for knowledge about the U.S. constitution, and the 32 seniors on the team are preparing to represent Oregon at the national competition in April.
Over the past four years, the Grant and Lincoln High School constitution teams have taken turns winning the national title in Washington, D.C. Grant won in 2013 and 2015. Lincoln was champion in 2014 and 2016.
The pressure is on to continue Oregon’s winning streak, said Mike Curtis, one of 15 volunteer coaches working with groups of team members. A lawyer, like most of the coaches, he has been a volunteer every year since his son, Joshua, was on the 2004 Grant team.
While keeping the national title in Oregon is on students’ minds, Curtis told his group: “I want you to have fun this spring. I want you to be high school seniors who are at an important time in your lives. I think people often do their best work when they aren’t under stress.”
It may not be stress, but the team members meet twice a week outside school hours to discuss issues raised in questions prepared by the Center for Civic Education of Calabasas, California, the sponsor of the “We the People” program.
The students also do additional reading about constitutional law, U.S. history and court cases they may use to bolster responses to questions they encounter at the national competition.
They won’t face a quiz show format, said Jeremy Reinholt, the teacher who provides history and constitutional studies in a class for the students. Instead, the national format is a simulated congressional hearing in which students testify before a panel made up of lawyers and sometimes members of Congress.
Some students don’t wait for coaches or teachers to tell them about relevant reading. During a Saturday afternoon at Powell’s Books, Maggie Miller found a book about legal issues related to the set of questions her team is studying.
In one question, a group is considering whether freedom of expression should have limits. Another is looking at philosophical questions surrounding policy changes made by judges and changes by legislators.
One group’s questions include the advantages and disadvantages of selecting the president by popular vote and an examination of the rationale for establishing the Electoral College.
“They do a deep dive into incredibly complex material,” Reinholt said. “The level of work they are doing is equivalent to first year law school when they combine all that work they are doing.”
Megan Gleason, who works on a state senator’s staff and is a co-coach with Mike Curtis, said she learned the importance of critical thinking as a member of Grant’s constitution team in the 2010-2011 school year.
“You learn how to speak your thoughts at the beginning of college,” she said. “I noticed I was ahead of some of my classmates in that respect. . . . You’re not afraid to ask the teacher questions. You’ve already been interrogated by 15 lawyers (in the national finals).”
Questions at the national level are more in-depth than those in the state competition, Gleason said. Nevertheless, she said, “It’s fun to have the experience.”
Students competing at the national level, she said, “know a sizable amount about the constitution and how government works.”
Reinholt said team members also are exposed to a variety of political theories, including those of Aristotle, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and David Hume.
While this year’s team is preparing for the Washington, D.C. trip from April 20-25, Grant juniors seeking a spot on next year’s team have an early March deadline to turn in essays on constitutional points.
The selection process includes the essays, interviews with Reinholt and some of the coaches, teachers’ comments, and an evaluation of speaking ability. Those selected will begin preparing for the 2018 state competition with readings over spring vacation and over the summer, Reinholt said. By September they will intensify work toward the January 2018 state event.
Meanwhile, the 2017 team is raising the $80,000 needed to send members and coaches to Washington, D.C. Law offices, friends, past team members and parents help gather funds, Reinholt said.
Donations may be sent to Grant High School, 2245 N.E. 36th Ave., Portland 97212, attention to Jeremy Reinholt.