Randallstown students Chidiago Nkume (from left), Jahannah… (Liz Bowie, BALTIMORE SUN )
With a passion for constitutional questions that bubbles just below the surface, a group of mostly foreign-born students from Randallstown High School beat out teams from schools in Montgomery, Washington and Charles counties for a chance to represent Maryland at a national social studies contest.
Perhaps it is because they come mostly from Nigeria, Liberia, Grenada and Egypt, countries that have all seen political turmoil, that these students, with the help of their teacher, have turned the new experiences of living in a democracy into a quest to win the We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution National Finals to be held in Washington this weekend.
"Most of them have this great interest because it was starkly different from what they experienced. They have the appreciation for the Constitution and U.S. Bill of Rights that you wish the natural-born citizens would," said Richard Weitkamp, whose entire Advanced Placement U.S. Government class at the Baltimore County school is taking part in the competition.
The team of 13, which includes two American-born students, was at work Wednesday preparing for a contest that requires them to write 18 essays on constitutional issues, each no longer than four minutes, to present on Saturday and Sunday. The teams must read the essays and then be grilled for six minutes by a panel of judges that includes Supreme Court justices, historians, attorneys and political scientists.
Christiana Ilufoye, a 17-year-old whose parents left Nigeria when she was 9 so that she and her siblings could get a better education, wants to become a lawyer, so she was eager to study the Constitution. But she wasn't so sure that the competition would be more than tedious preparation and stress, until the first round when she said the team decided it was fun.
The students represent some of the best and brightest of the school. They include the top eight students in the senior class, and everyone ranks in the top 10 percent. They said they have taken classes together for years, often moving throughout the school from one AP or gifted-and-talented class to another.
Nearly half are Nigerians and most have become friends outside school. Oluchukwu Agu, who came from Nigeria to Randallstown in 10th grade, is still trying to adjust. "The values and the culture are so different. In Nigeria, education comes first. … No one here is going to take a D home," he said.
"We have some bonds because we all have a purpose here," Ilufoye said of the competition. "We all know why we take this seriously." The government course, she said, has helped to explain many of the whys of American history: "Why this law is here, why we have Miranda rights, why we have fair trials."
They began preparing for the early regional competitions in their class, but most recently Weitkamp has had them do the work after school on their own. They have worked in teams to present their essays.
The students said they feel well prepared and hope to make it to the top 10, which will be announced Sunday night. The top 10 teams will then compete Monday.
"The students at Randallstown High School are lucky to have such an energetic, talented and caring teacher. He has been able to make the Constitution come alive in his classroom by connecting the principles and practices with his students' lives. His students will be empowered by this experience forever," Marcie Taylor-Thoma, coordinator of social studies for the state, said in an email.
We the People is put on by the Center for Civic Education and is funded by federal and private grants. However, Thoma said this year's competition may be the last because the money for the competition has been cut in the federal budget.
Weitkamp had to raise $15,000 to pay for expenses during the four-day trip.
"They are a fun class to work with," Weitkamp said, because they are bright students with ardently held beliefs who like challenging one another's assumptions.