East High School AP Government and Politics students took first place at an annual national mock trial competition. “The questions are different every year but they are really tailored to the issues of the day and true to the nature of our democracy. Ten years ago, we were looking at Guantánamo and the War on Terror. This year, the focus was on issues like civic engagement, government oversight,” says East teacher and team coach Susan McHugh.
“The judges and the simulated hearings really treat the kids as experts in the room, resulting in detailed discussions of where we should go.” Co-coach and East teacher Matt Fulford adds, “One of the things they really appreciated at the national competition was how well the students could relate local issues to national issues.” He cites the recent ballot initiative 300 (Right to Survive) as an example.
More than 1,200 students and 56 teachers from across the U.S. competed in We the People, administered by the Center for Civic Education. East represented Colorado after winning the state championship, with a team from Grandview participating as a wild card team this year.
Historically, the East team has done well in the competition, earning the state championship for all but two years since the program’s inception in 1988, according to McHugh. This year’s national win marks their 5th national championship, with the most recent in 2009.
McHugh, who had been a teacher for the 2007 and 2008 championship teams as well, observes that the program inspires hope in her. “The kids are informed, engaged, and compassionate, and grappling with tough, complex problems…but they look forward to meeting those problems. We can all feel really hopeless. But it [this experience] leaves me feeling renewed.”
Students commonly refer to the class as “Con Law,” and all Con Law students participate in the annual competition, with fundraising key to ensuring that no one is left out. Former East teacher Beth Gower, who spearheads fundraising, shares that the alumni network was again extremely supportive in helping the team reach its $80,000 goal. She notes that some alumni have told her how transformative their participation in the program was, and they now donate to ensure that others have the same opportunity. “There has never been one kid who hasn’t said it wasn’t the most significant thing that they did,” says Gower.
Even though not all participating students will pursue a career in the justice system or attend law school, the program nurtures a love of civics. Fulford observes that on their return trip to Denver, the students had a lively discussion about the Mueller Report and Attorney General Barr.
“I think students have come back inspired and excited about the experience. They don’t have a competition ahead of them anymore but they were reading the paper this morning and talking about the issues….it’s ongoing…it’s not over for them. The skills they learned go beyond civics and government. They collaborated in a way that I only ever did in college. They have to be great researchers and writers. They all have to persevere and learn…some on public speaking or writing, others on teamwork or learning how to delegate. The value of it goes way beyond civics,” says Fulford.