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Students get chance at national contest

Published May 1, 2005

SEMINOLE - Fifteen Keswick Christian School students are living a Cinderella story this weekend.

After placing second in January in a state competition that tested their knowledge of the U.S. Constitution, they found out the first-place team, a school from Miami, would be unable to travel to Washington, D.C., for the national contest.

Since then, the students have been working hard to prepare for the three-day "We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution" event sponsored by the Center for Civic Education.

They left early Friday morning for the competition, which would place them in a simulated congressional hearing. A panel of judges was to test their knowledge on the philosophical and historical foundations of the American political system and the ways in which the values and principals embodied in the Constitution have shaped American institutions and practices.

"It's a very intense competition," said Melani Winter, who teaches global studies at Keswick and is the students' coach. "The judges will be professionals from across the country. Some are actual court judges."

The students will find out tonight if they made it into the top 10. If so, they will compete for the top prize on Monday.

Winter, who competed in the 18-year-old program when she was in high school, said she was eager to introduce it at Keswick because it reaches out to all types of students.

"If they have the heart to be in it, they can be successful," she said.

Danielle Kurant, a 17-year-old senior, said she signed up for Winter's class because she wanted to sharpen her debate skills. She also wanted to learn more about American government.

"A lot of what I knew before this class was just what I'd been told," she said. "We actually have looked into the Constitution to see what it says."

One thing that has surprised Kurant, who is valedictorian of Keswick's graduating class, is the number of citizens' rights that have come through legal precedent rather than the Constitution.

She also was surprised to learn how much of what she was learning had a direct bearing on current events.

"We have talked about the Patriot Act," she said. "We talked about the (Terri) Schiavo case, and we talked about the war on terror. We had dedicated debates, and we also had a lot of mini debates on the side."

The opportunity to listen to well-reasoned arguments and different points of view has been an invaluable feature of the class for Charlie Near. The 18-year-old, who considers himself a conservative, said the class has taught him to respect other people's opinions.

"What this class has taught me is how to debate without letting my emotions get into it," he said. "I remember at the beginning of the class, I would go in ready to bite someone's head off if he didn't agree with me."

While even heated debate did not change his mind about supporting the war in Iraq, Near said there were times when he had to step back and listen to others.

And like several of his classmates, he began to realize the importance of personal responsibility.

"We have a government that is ruled by people through their representatives," he said. "We have to take a more active role, by writing letters to our senators or simply by voting."

[Last modified April 30, 2005, 23:59:18]

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