PLEASANTON -- The road to nationals is paved with hour after hour after hour of intense preparation.
Amador Valley High School's competition civics team members hope their seemingly endless hours of work will win them the title of the best We the People team in the nation, a title that has eluded Amador since 1995.
"We probably have a record for second places," coach Brian Ladd joked. Amador has reached the national level 13 times in the past 25 years. "All but two years of those 13, we've been in the top three."
Amador hopes to end its second-place trend with a first-place victory when the 24-member team travels to Washington, D.C., in late April to compete against 54 other high schools at the national competition. Amador won the state title in early February.
"We've already prepared for state, so we have a strong grasp on what we're learning," senior Lillian Sun said. "You have to have a lot more knowledge going into nationals, so there's a lot more studying. It really is about getting the nuances on those fine details and learning about little things most people don't know about our government. We're learning those fine details that most people don't learn until college or not at all."
We the People is a competition civics team that's offered as a one-semester class for seniors at Amador. This year, 31 students competed for the highly coveted 24 slots on the team. Last year, more than 60 students tried out for the team.
Students get to know the Constitution and Bill of Rights inside and out in preparation for local, regional and state competitions with an eye on making it to the national level. Competitions are set up as mock Congressional hearings. Students are given questions to study in advance. Each of six units within the team makes a brief presentation, or testimony, at competitions, followed by grueling question-and-answer sessions.
"When we're presenting the testimonies, it's an exhilarating feeling," senior Eric Chan said. "It's a rush unlike anything I've ever felt before. When we're standing in front of the judges, there's a sense of excitement because we've been working so long to perfect our knowledge. It's just exciting to get to show them what we know."
We the People was started in 1987 by the Center for Civic Education to foster civic education through specialized classes and competitions. Amador jumped on board in 1989 and won its first and only national title in 1995.
"California is the most competitive state in the country for this particular competition," said Clinton Woods, a member of the 1995 championship team. He's now a San Francisco attorney who helps coach Amador's team. "This competition is extremely rigorous." Amador will be the sole California team at the national competition, Woods noted.
"To win state is an enormous accomplishment," he said. "That said, the level of competition at nationals is several steps up. The kids are going to have to use what they've learned so far as a baseline and essentially put in twice as much work and twice as much effort to reach that championship level. My work will be to help them hone their skills. The kids are going to be doing additional research on topics they haven't researched yet."
The We the People civics class ended in January, but all of the team members are enrolled in a special study class so they can prepare daily for the national competition. They also stay after school several days each week and practice nearly four hours every Saturday.
"They're doing research, and they're writing their testimony," Ladd said of the team's preparations for nationals. "(The testimony) is only four minutes long, but the questions are quite advanced. The topics they're doing research on are what I was doing when I was working on my master's in political science.
"It's just constant preparation, peppering them with questions," he continued. "They are constantly changing their testimonies. Every other day, we are evaluating and critiquing their testimony."
Students must learn every aspect of the Constitution and Bill of Rights in order to address the questions and skillfully defend their testimonies against rigorous questions from the judges, many who are actual judges. The final rounds of competition are held in the U.S. House of Representatives hearing rooms.
"You know you're going to get critical and difficult judges and be judged against the best teams in the country, so the pressure ratchets up a little bit more," Woods said.
"It's really great that we get to compete with teams from all over the nation and to have that setting of the capitol because we're learning about the Constitution," Sun added. "It's exciting to be at the one place that's so central to our government."
Every We the People team is new each year since the class is open to seniors only, Ladd noted. He says this year's team has advanced more than any other team he's had in terms of grasping the depth and breadth of knowledge needed to master the topics.
"They need to just keep doing what they're doing to win (nationals) this year," Ladd said. "If you do your best, there's nothing else you can do. This year, we've considered ourselves the underdogs the entire time. It's been really, really rewarding to see the progress. It's a total team effort. There's no one person or group that stands out. At the state competition, every unit finished first or second. No other school could say that."
The team members hope to bring home the gold from nationals, but they also realize that getting this far is an important part of the journey.
"Honestly, it's pretty exhilarating," Chan said of the experience of making it to nationals. "This experience is probably one of the most valuable in high school. We're becoming so civically engaged. It's a wonderful experience to make us even more engaged citizens in our government. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Amador Valley High School's We the People team must raise $59,000 to take part in the national competition. Tax-deductible donations may be sent to AVHS Competition Civics, 1155 Santa Rita Road, Pleasanton, CA 94566.
Visit new.civiced.org/national-finals-2014 to learn more about We the People and the national competition. Look under Teachers for the three hearing questions students will face at nationals.