“Let’s talk,” Michael Potts said to his fifth-period We the People class.
Heads hung low. One student wiped tears from her eyes and the room was quiet.
It was the first time they’d all been together after placing second in the state finals of the civics contest, eliminating them from the spring national competition in Washington, D.C.
Rival Fishers Junior High School took the state title this year by 95 points.
The classroom with photos of presidents lining the walls was like a locker room following a major defeat. And Potts was its coach, giving it to them straight.
“This is a team sport,” Potts told the room.
“We’re only as strong as our weakest link.
“(They’re not going to say) ‘Brown County’s here. Here’s the trophy.’ It doesn’t work that way, and I think some of you thought it did. It’s easy to think that,” Potts said.
With six consecutive state championships, two national runner-up titles and two national championships on its resume, Brown County had become to We the People sort of like the New England Patriots are to the NFL, Potts said — the school that wins everything. “Six years running, people want to see us lose,” he said.
The past two years, Fishers finished second behind Brown County. Fishers teacher Mike Fassold had a picture of the BCJHS team in his classroom to motivate his students, Potts said.
“Outwork the competition,” he told his eighth-graders. “That’s how you win anything. You outwork the competition.”
Down the hall from his classroom is the cafeteria wall with six pictures of former We the People state and national champions. Much like a trophy case showing off winning athletic teams, it’s one of the first displays school visitors notice.
That’s one reason why Rowyn Kean decided to try out for the team. She cried when she found out she made it.
“I always thought, ‘Wow, those people have such great minds and they know so much. I really want to advance my learning and get into a competitive class,’” she said.
“I think that kids here celebrate their success like they would celebrate the success of a successful sports team,” Principal Brian Garman said.
“I think there’s very much a respect among our student body for what those kids do and the hard work they put in and their accomplishments.”
But in every successful program, there will always come a loss.
When asked if they heard anything negative from their peers that morning, every hand in the classroom went up.
“Those people don’t have a clue what you’ve done. Not a clue. Those people are not in this classroom. Those people have not sat here and learned the things you’ve learned or done the things you’ve done,” Potts said.
We the People challenges students to answer questions about the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence and history-making court cases in front of a panel of judges.
It’s set up like a congressional hearing and sponsored by legal group the Indiana Bar Foundation. The students have to be able to think on their feet and support their arguments from the base of knowledge they have built.
Potts is proud of them. And so was their community when news hit social media that they’d finished second in the state.
“I can see what these kids have learned and what they’ve taken from it. That’s the victory,” Potts said. “And they can’t see that (now), but they will.”
The competitive We the People program at BCJHS began in the late 1990s under former social studies teacher Tim Robison, Garman said.
Potts had about 30 students apply to be in this year’s We the People class. Twenty got in.
Students were required to write a letter of interest and complete an in-class essay. Potts also looks at students’ grades, and he’s considering adding an interview to the selection process next school year.
“It is tough, but at the same time, they have to know what is expected, and the expectations are high,” he said.
Dalton Hedrick was up for it.
“I wanted a challenge, and I wanted something that made me separate from everybody else — something that made me stand out like a good citizen and a person in our school who really wanted to go places,” he said.
“I look at people from past years and I see how great they are, and how people give them so much recognition for what they’ve done, and I wanted to be one of those people.”
Garman notices the team’s influence on the whole building.
“That extra emphasis on what it means to be a good citizen is really a help for this school, because I think they may go out and project to the rest of the student body by example,” he said.
“I think it has a big impact on the culture of the school,” he said.
“I know they’re disappointed that they didn’t win, but winning is defined by a lot more than a single event and a trophy,” said Garman, a former coach and athletic director. “Winning is about putting in the effort to do the best you can.”
“Second in the state is certainly nothing to be ashamed of at all. Just making it to the state competition is an accomplishment.”
Kean and Hedrick said they are taking more than that finish with them when they graduate from the class in May. Since they will not be practicing for nationals next semester, the team will follow the curriculum of an honors social studies class.
“I think my life and being a citizen, it’s completely turned around,” Kean said. “You learn to have an opinion and I learned to back it up.”
“I feel like we’re taking so many things out of this class, knowing that we’re better citizens now than we were when we came into this class,” Hedrick said.
As the class period neared an end, Potts left his students on a positive note.
“Second place is great,” he said.
“Hold your head high forever, no matter what you do, because you are great kids.
“You all are going a lot farther than I will probably go. That’s a fact.”
Unit 1: What were the Founders’ basic ideas about government?
Reid Davis, Jarod Greiner, John Oliver
Unit 2: What shaped the Founders’ thinking about government?
Abigail Angebrandt, Wylah Brahaum, Ariyanna Phillips, Meghan Waggoner
Unit 3: What happened at the Philadelphia Convention?
Kaylen Combest, Jascyn Martin, Myah Woodard
Unit 4: How was the Constitution used to establish our government?
Aidan Burt, Noah Cochran, Cameron Fox, Dalton Hedrick
Unit 5: How does the Constitution protect our basic rights?
Megan Bickley, Emelia Koester, Natalie Suding
Unit 6: What are the responsibilities of citizens?
Lauren Akles, Kylie Herald, Rowyn Kean