We the People class headed to nationals for 13th straight year

We the People class headed to nationals for 13th straight year

Thirty-four freshmen in the North Smithfield High School We the People program will travel to Leesburg, Virginia, in April to compete in the national finals.
Local program leads the way in civics education

NORTH SMITHFIELD – It’s been a staple of North Smithfield High School education since 2002, and this April, the students of Natalie O’Brien’s freshman We the People course will head to the national finals for the 13th year running.

The class is an honors version of the freshman American Government course, fulfilling a school requirement for civics education. But it’s also a national competition, one that North Smithfield has excelled at on the state level since 2007.

Students spend the first half of the year covering a typical civics curriculum, learning about the history of United States government and its implementation today. Beginning in December, they gear all their efforts toward preparing for the state competition, which took place this year at NSHS on Feb. 9. As part of the competition, students present before a panel of judges on topics ranging from the details of individual rights to government involvement in global affairs.

“The questions, since they change every year, are often rooted in modern events,” explained O’Brien, who brought the program to the school in 2002.

According to O’Brien, the class gives students an opportunity to debate current events, with topics such as congressional oversight and immigration making regular appearances. While the class focuses on national government, O’Brien also looks for opportunities to bring in local issues, including last year’s proposed Nike boycott or the charter amendments in the 2018 election.

“I think that it is an authentic assessment that lets students share their knowledge,” she said. “Everyone’s paper may not answer the same question in the same way.”

Students noted the importance of the class for teaching them how to discuss political topics. Abby Sevegny, a freshman in the program, said she finds most political discussions today involve a lot of arguing back and forth without constructive debate. It’s a concern shared by Kaitlyn Walsh and George Malian, seniors and alumni of the We the People program. Malian recalled a debate in an AP Government class when students – most of them We the People alumni – debated the Syrian refugee crisis and several ended up switching sides after hearing the other’s argument.

“I think the biggest effect We the People has is teaching students to think independently,” he said. “Kate and I agree on a lot of things, but I don’t believe what Kate believes just because Kate believes it.”

It’s a skill that some fear is under attack. While American Government is a required class at NSHS, the state of Rhode Island does not require civics education, and some fear its absence could lead to less prepared citizens. In the fall, a group of 14 Rhode Island public high school students made headlines when they sued the state for failing to provide a civics education, arguing it made them less prepared to function in civic life. Around the same time, Gov. Charlie Baker in Massachusetts signed a law to require civics projects at the high school level, a move many say Rhode Island should follow.

The impact of a lack of resources for civic education is visible within the program. When North Smithfield first began participating in We the People in 2002, there was fierce competition at the state level, with eight or nine schools participating. This year, NSHS was the only school to participate in the state, giving them a guaranteed spot at nationals (though students still had to give presentations before a panel of judges as with any past state competition). O’Brien said the decline is due in part to a lack of funding for the program as well as the toll it takes on volunteers.

O’Brien trains other teachers in the program through workshops at Suffolk University. At NSHS, she relies on a lineup of volunteers – including state representatives, local officials, attorneys and program alumni – to serve as judges at the school’s annual dress rehearsal and guest speakers in class. In terms of civic involvement, the efforts pay off. Studies, she said, show that students who participate in We the People are more likely to vote and participate in local government later in life. That includes students like Walsh and Malian, both of who served as poll workers during the most recent election and plan to study political science in college.

“Because of We the People, I want to be a constitutional lawyer,” said Walsh.

O’Brien is hoping more teachers in Rhode Island recognize the opportunities of the program for their classes. Her students, meanwhile, are hard at work preparing for their trip to Leesburg, Virginia, April 26 to 30. Many schools reserve the program for their junior and senior classes, so the town’s freshmen will face off against some of the most civic-minded upperclassmen in the country.

The public is invited to view the students’ dress rehearsal at NSHS on Tuesday, April 23, at 6:30 p.m. Several upcoming fundraisers will help the students defray the cost of their trip, including:

• March 26 – Gator’s Pub night, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. (a percentage of proceeds will benefit We the People).

• April 7 – Car Wash at NSHS, 12 to 3 p.m.

• Raffle tickets available for local gift certificates, PPAC tickets and preseason Patriots tickets. Contact Natalie O’Brien at nobrien@nsps.us to purchase.


I can only imagine the lasting impact the students will have in life. Natalie O'Brien is a true public servant.