The “We the People” competition has been challenging students’ knowledge of the Constitution since 1987. This year, first-time contender Dover High School took the state title.

The Feb. 13 state competition at Smyrna High School pitted Dover’s team against those of Smyrna and Lake Forest High School. The state champs are moving on to the nationals in Washington April 21 to 24.

Molly Phillips, a social studies teacher at Dover High School, found out about the contest during a training session at Valley Forge. She thought it was a good way for students to learn more about all things related to politics and government.

“We are trying to get our school involved in academic things,” Phillips said. “It tests the principles of the Constitution and basically talks about how the founding fathers shaped a document which has lasted 240 years.”

Teams are required to choose one of six units, or categories, such as voting rights, cybersecurity or immigration, and study theirs until they have an in-depth understanding.

Three questions are assigned to each topic.  Students are required to answer the questions in a four minute speech they put together prior to the competition.

Each student in a unit is required to recite part of the speech. Then, the judges ask follow up questions.

Anmol Gill, 18, said that was the more challenging part.

“We had to know everything about those specific topics,” he said.

Barry Jones, 18, is a senior with dreams of becoming a lawyer. Jones, who competed in two units — Bill of Rights and immigration — said the follow-up forced them to make sure they knew the material.

“During the time of follow-up questions nothing is prompted,” Jones said. “There are no notes involved. [Questions] may be related to your topics, but they are completely isolated questions.”

Cassandra Cordie competed in the voting rights and civil liberties category. She’s spent hours studying the history of voting rights, who it has affected and how it’s relevant today.

“You had to be well-rounded on current events to draw a conclusion to make ties between civil liberties and voting rights,” she said.

Senior Maxim Nikolenko said teammates don’t always agree. A certain level of debate among the teams is a positive trait the judges looked at alongside the quality of the written speech.

“Like in most things, you can sometimes have differences among team members,” Nikolenko said.

Nikolenko and Gill worked in the dissent category. They learned about and researched the potential of citizens to disagree with the government.

“Anmol was more in favor people should speak out against something,” Nikolenko said. “I held a more conservative view on the subject and I said sometimes dissent is destabilizing the situation and divides people.”

The team attributes most of its success to determination. Once a week since October they gathered at Dover High School for a 6:30 p.m. practice. The closer they got to competition the more serious they became.

“We had a lot of brainstorming sessions,” Jones said. “We were really grinding it out and making sure we had [our ideas] on paper.”

Trying something new

Since age 10, Nikolenko said, he has looked for new ways to express himself.

“I wanted to bring my ideas to a big platform,” he said. “Maybe I have ideas that will be useful. This is an age where we need brave and bold thinking.”

Jones signed up because he thought it was a nice stepping stone on his path to becoming a lawyer.

Cordie’s in it for the experience.    

“I know a lot of people here are interested in pursuing politics — I’m not,” she said. “I wanted to challenge myself a little bit and I wanted a venue for me to become more articulate and well-spoken.”

Gill was nervous, but then discovered he enjoyed speaking in front of people.

“They said it’s a platform where you can express your opinions,” he said. “I figured, ‘I’m a senior, so what do I have to lose?’”

Against the odds

“We know that we have a hard task ahead of us,” Gill said. “No one expected us to get this far, so this is just another hurdle that we have to climb.”

According to Jones, practice sessions weren’t as structured as at some schools.

“We have schools like CR and Smyrna that have been competing year after year,” Jones said. “There are some people who have it as a class. We don’t have that here.”

Jones said winning at the state level is their way of debunking negative myths about Dover High School.

“People tend to look at our school and they have an automatic opinion of Dover High School and I think this group doesn’t represent what people think,” he said.

Gill has no doubt they will be ready for the nationals.

“It’s not beginners luck, I can tell you that. It’s hard work and dedication,” he said. “When we get there it might seem to them that this is the underdog. They might brush us off, but when we arrive we’ll be prepared just like we were for the states.”

Smyrna High School Associate Principal Marcus Deisem coached their 2004 winning team. He commended Dover on its accomplishment.

“During the competition I was able to observe Dover and I was impressed by their preparation and their abilities,” he said.