Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - April 15, 2011

We the People: Then and Now

Students in Constitution competition are motivated to succeed

by Glenn Wohltmann

It's a chicken-and-egg question: Do the students who participate in We the People succeed because of the intensive civics program, or does the program draw students who would be successful anyway?

The answer is probably a bit of both. Most of the Amador Valley High School students who won the national We the People finals in 1995 have gone on to successful careers: Two, for example, are engineers with well-known firms, two are lawyers, and one is with the State Department.

Ben Glickman, now an attorney in Palo Alto, said it's a combination of both.

"We the People is unique in that it's not a true honors class," Glickman said, explaining the team members are not necessarily the top 30 kids at Amador. "The people who try out for We the People are motivated and work hard, and the people who are motivated and tend to work hard are the people who are successful later in life."

Amador Valley High School's current We the People team won the state championship and is headed to compete in the national finals at the end of the month. Glickman is helping the team get ready for the competition, acting as a judge for practice rounds.

"I'll actually be going back (to Washington, D.C.) with the team, which will be a lot of fun," he said.

Glickman said We the People, also known as comp civics, helped him become "a better writer, a better thinker and a better speaker."

"The program does equip people with skills that are unique," he said. "It's truly the full range of skills that you need to become successful."

Ryan Long is with the Foreign Service Institute with the U.S. Department of State. Long said most of the members on his team would probably have done well no matter what.

"I would say that most of the people on the team would have been successful anyway," he said. "I was kind of the exception to the rule. I was a C student and I went on to finish grad school."

Long added that his training with the team helped him pass the foreign service exam.

"For people who want to work for the State Department, the exam's probably been going on for 40 years now and they ask a lot of questions that have to do with the history of the U.S. and constitutionality," Long said.

He said what he learned is still helping him as he's posted to places democracy hasn't taken hold of yet.

"Being a diplomat now, we tell the story of the U.S. to other people," Long said, using his recent posting to Nigeria as an example. "They didn't have democratic rule until 2001 ... There are things they're unfamiliar with."

Members of the 1995 team have special memories of the competition, but many of those memories center around Skipp Mohatt, their teacher and coach who died in 2008.

"Even after high school, I would always drop in and visit him," Long said. "He had a philosophy of tough love. He was kind of a stern person (but) he was just doing that for us to do the best we could. He was also a very emotional person -- seeing us win was the first time I saw him cry."

That memory is shared by Danielle Havener, who's now a middle school teacher in Danville.

"After the final round, when we had all finished doing the questions -- he was usually very hard on us but at the end he was in tears, just telling us how proud he was of us. That's just etched on my brain, He was a really cool teacher," Havener said.

She said Mohatt also inspired her to become a teacher.

"That was a big influence, because of Mr. Mohatt," she said, adding that being on the team "helped with my public speaking and being able to talk in front of people."

As with the other members of the team, Havener said it's tough to say whether the students succeeded because of their involvement, or if they would have been successful anyway.

"I'd say it definitely helped but I'd say, too, that a lot of the people on the team were really motivated," she said. "It would definitely be a factor but it's not the only factor."

Chris Bing is continuing to work on his doctorate in Sino-African affairs from UC San Diego while also raising his son as a full-time father. After research trips to China and several African states, including The Sudan, he paused to take care of newborn Jonathan while his wife Mary completes her residency this June as an emergency room doctor at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

Bing pointed out that the competition is for high school seniors, and most of them already have been accepted into college.

"It's not like it helps you get into college. It's very personal. You do it for yourself, you do it for the group," Bing said, adding, "I think it helps in college especially. A lot of the assignments are team-based. Working with a diverse group, that was essential."

According to the organization's website, more than 2 million students each year participate in We the People, which concludes in Washington, D.C., with a simulated congressional hearing, a performance to test their understanding of the Constitution and their analytical thinking skills.

Constitutional experts evaluate their understanding of the U.S. founding principles in hearings where students testify as constitutional experts before panels of judges acting as a congressional committee.

Each class is divided into six groups, one group for each of the six units of the "We the People: The Citizen & the Constitution" textbook. Testimony begins with a formal presentation, followed by questioning where the judges look into the students' understanding and their ability to apply constitutional knowledge.

About 1,200 students from all 50 states along with some from District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands will compete in this year's 24th annual competition in Washington, D.C., which runs from April 30 to May 2. While there, the students will get the chance to tour the capital and meet with members of Congress and other dignitaries.

The current members seem to be following the footsteps of the class of '95 along the path to success.

Xanth El-Sayed, a member of this year's team, said his involvement with We the People has changed his perspective and given him a new career path.

"It's opened my eyes a lot to different things. We have a very privileged life here and you hear about a lot of different things that don't really apply to you. Comp civics lets you see what's going on outside the little bubble of Pleasanton," El-Sayad said.

He said as a result of We the People, he's changed his college focus.

"I'm going to UC Santa Barbara in the fall. Originally, I was going into biology or engineering and I was going to minor in marine biology, and now, after going through comp civics," El-Sayed explained, "I'm thinking of majoring in marine biology and minoring in environmental sciences and focusing on nonprofit foundations' part in the realm of aquatic life."

Emily Truax is headed to UC Berkley, planning to study political science. She said We the People has kept her busy and focused while some of her classmates have been coasting.

"All of my other friends have gotten lazy," Truax said.

She also noted the members of the comp civics team have forged a bond.

"We're all friends. We push each other and tell each other to work harder. It's not self motivation, it's team motivation," she said.

Giving back to the community seems to be common among all the Amador comp civics members, past and present.

Glickman and fellow attorney Clint Woods, another member of the '95 team, along with another former We the People participant from Bakersfield, are forming a nonprofit corporation to promote civics.

"It's not just to support We the People, it's for civic education in general, which would include We the People," Glickman said. "Civics, to my eye, is the bedrock of society. Without knowledge of our society and government and the role of citizens, I don't see the future of government. It's important for citizens to know the responsibility they have to society and to each other."

Havener has done community service with an animal shelter and the local food bank, and plans to spend at least one day a year in a community-oriented project.

We the People also seems to draw its participants back. Glickman is a volunteer judge, and the current teacher, Keldon Clegg, went though the course in the mid 2000s.

Even Truax, who's not yet done with the final round, is planning on contributing in the future.

"In 10 years, I see myself as a successful attorney," she said. "If it still exists (there's been some talk in Congress about eliminating finding for the program), I want to come back and judge at future competitions."

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