WASHINGTON — What lessons does the decline of the Roman Empire hold for America's future?
Fielding questions like this one could stump even the most seasoned of lawyers, but it's nothing new for the 15 junior and senior girls at Our Lady of Lourdes Academy of Miami, who competed in the 23rd annual "We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution" challenge in Washington over the weekend.
After dedicating nearly 30 hours a week all year long to cramming the ins and outs of the Constitution, the Lourdes team snagged a seventh place finish out of more than 50 teams in the finalist round yesterday. Topping the list was Arcadia High School of Arcadia, Calif.
The annual challenge tested the civics knowledge of more than 1,100 high school students.
On Monday, more than 50 teams were narrowed down to 10. In mock congressional hearings held in the Senate Judiciary Committee room, political science professors, attorneys and historians quizzed the team on such topics as whether the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United has a corrupting influence on government and what 19th century historian Alexis de Toqueville would think of modern-day affirmative action.
The Lourdes girls, dressed in black and gray suit jackets and pencil skirts instead of their daily uniform of pleated plaids, hardly skipped a beat. Opening their arguments with quotes ranging from Robert Frost to Aristotle, the team pointed to the younger generation's increased volunteerism and voter turnout as signs of a healthy democracy, unlike the final days before the fall of Rome.
For the Lourdes team, the secret to success lies with program director and government teacher Rosie Heffernan, whom they described as an adoptive mother. Heffernan has led the group on and off since 1991, placing in the top 10 every year but her first and bringing home the gold on four occasions.
"She's not just a teacher to us anymore, but at the same time it's tough love for sure," said senior Allison Henry.
Lourdes principal Sister M. Sheila Foy said Heffernan is tireless in her quest to stretch the minds of her team, even going so far as having them practice in a courtroom to be prepared for the intimidating scene on Capitol Hill.
"I think the program is one of the best things going in teaching kids about their own responsibilities and rights as a citizen," Foy said.
Educational Testing Service surveys of the program's 30 million alumni show that 95 percent voted in the November 2008 elections, while 76 percent voted in all previous elections for which they were eligible. In addition, 56 percent had petitioned government officials on a public issue.
After three hours of quizzing, the girls hugged and chattered, congratulating each other on their performances in the hot seat.
"I think we killed it," said senior Meaghan Quigley.
That confidence is exactly what Heffernan is going for.
"What's more important than just citizen knowledge is that when they walked in to my classroom, they were so quiet, so shy, and now they're not afraid to express an opinion," Heffernan said. "It makes them strong women, and that should be the goal of any of our programs."
Retired Oregon Supreme Court Judge Susan Leeson encouraged the Lourdes team to challenge the status quo at a time when many question the strength of American democracy.
"You're the kind of minds that I want working on the fix, because you're so darn smart and it's such a pleasure to spend time with you thinking about these weighty matters," she said.
All of them said they're up to the next challenge. Despite the countless hours of prepping for the challenge and the grueling finalist round, Henry said she wasn't burned out in the slightest.
"There's always so much changing and developing when it comes to constitutional issues," she said. "It's hard to get bored."
TOP TEN FINISHERS
First place: Arcadia High School, Arcadia, Calif.
Second: Vestavia Hills High School, Vestavia Hills, Ala.
Third: Maggie L. Walker Governor's School for Government and International Studies, Richmond, Va.
Fourth: Lincoln High School, Portland, Ore.
Fifth: East High School, Denver
Sixth: East Brunswick High School, East Brunswick, N.J.
Seventh: Our Lady of Lourdes Academy, Miami
Eighth: Munster High School, Munster, Ind.
Ninth: Westminster Christian Academy, St. Louis
Tenth: Wauwatosa West High School, Wauwatosa, Wis.
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