Pass / Fail | So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

For these Southern California teens, learning about the Constitution is a team sport

Constitution Team competes by simulating Congressional Committee hearings in which they expound on the US Constitution.
Constitution Team competes by simulating Congressional Committee hearings in which they expound on the US Constitution.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC
Constitution Team competes by simulating Congressional Committee hearings in which they expound on the US Constitution.
Members of Arcadia HS's Constitution Team proudly wear their team jackets.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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This is one part in a new KPCC series, Project Citizen, that looks at the rights, responsibilities, traditions and privileges that come along with being a citizen. Let us know what you think.

About 30 high school kids gathered at the Arcadia City Council Chambers Monday night — not to attend the meeting, but rather to create one of their own.

They're members of Arcadia High's Constitution Team, kids who compete on their knowledge of the U.S. Constitution, constitutional Supreme Court decisions and current affairs. Their teacher, Kevin Fox, was leading them through mock congressional hearings to practice for a statewide competition on the Constitution, which is being held in Bakersfield Saturday.

Dressed in dark suits and jackets — the uniform of law firm and government interns — they faced three local lawyers who tossed questions and interjected as they replied.

Isaac Klipstein got this gem: If the Magna Carta was not a Constitution, how were its provisions ever enforced against King John?

“Well, in many ways they weren’t," he replied. "The Magna Carta was quickly made invalid by the Pope of the time because the barons had forced the king into the compact.”

Related: Does the Pledge of Allegiance still mean something in schools?

As a California task force warns of a crisis in schools' lack of civics instruction, Sacramento County superintendent of schools Dave Gordon — a member of the task force — said this team is a model for how to teach young people about their role in government. His daughter, he said, is a lawyer now in part because of a similar, mock court competition.

“They’re very, very powerful because they let students get hands on and use all of their skills,” he said.

These Arcadia students have spent two to three hours most Monday nights since October practicing in Arcadia City Hall.

All team members are also in Fox’s 12th grade Advanced Placement Government class — that's a requirement to get in. And teens compete to get on the team — as many as 140 juniors try out for 30 spots.

Arcadia High School started its Constitution Team 26 year ago. It's as big a deal on campus for some students as varsity football. Constitution Team members strut down the halls in black jackets, with their names embroidered on the front and stars and stripes on the back.

Klipstein, one of the team members, said he developed a passion for politics as a 13-year-old watching episodes of the television series “The West Wing” with his parents.

“One of the perks of Gov. Team is being able to beat my parents in conversations about law at the dinner table,” he said.

Politics echo at home

Classmate Annie Yang said politics were always echoing in her house growing up. Her mom is a cancer researcher who immigrated from Taiwan.

“Her and my grandma would often watch the Taiwanese news and would often talk about which president is currently in, what congress did and the legislative branch did there," she said. "I would always be lost and unsure what they’re talking about. And that’s not something I really loved feeling."

That cultural gap between the old country and the new one prompted Yang to join Constitution team.

“Because this is where I was born and this is where my home is, and I would love people to know more about the constitution,” she said.

Fox said Constitution Team teaches kids more than just what the document means.

“One of the scoring components of the competition side is that they present a variety of viewpoints and that’s hard for young people, because sometimes a group is very unified in a political, ideological position,” he said.

Team alumni have gone on to become doctors, lawyers and business owners, he said.

He cringes about the reduction in civics classes that some schools have made in order to focus on English and math.

“It’s a travesty. It’s a national crisis," he said. "We’re a democracy, and we need our citizens to know what the heck is going on and not to fall for sound bites and rhetoric that tricks them into thinking certain things."

The federal government used to fund this and other Constitution Teams across the country — paying for travel and teacher training. But that funding was eliminated four years ago.

Now schools that want to compete have to raise their own money. There used to be 12 teams in California, now there are just nine.

Whoever wins the "We the People" state finals in Bakersfield on Saturday goes on to the national championship in April.

A few years ago, 52 finalists went to the national competition — winners from every state, plus Washington and the Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory. But due to budget cuts, four states aren't expected to compete this year.