SHERIDAN — Sheridan High School has a history of dynastic programs. The Broncs football team recently won its third consecutive state title, and Sheridan captured four straight football championships in the early 1990s.
But a Sheridan team had never taken home five state titles in a row — until last week, when SHS won the Wyoming We The People: The Citizen and the Constitution championship in Laramie for the fifth straight year.
The team will now compete in the 31st annual We The People National Finals in Washington, D.C., beginning April 27.
“I think it’s the hallmark of an outstanding academic program in Sheridan,” We The People state coordinator Matt Strannigan said.
Advanced Placement U.S. government students at SHS are required to participate in We The People, which began nationwide in 1987. There are 25 students — 24 juniors and one senior.
We The People coach Michael Thomas teaches the class and is in his first year of coaching after replacing Tyson Emborg, who taught for 17 years at SHS and moved to Colorado last year to be closer to family.
Replacing a legend like Emborg was no small task.
“Coming in here, I was like, ‘How am I going to rattle off four state championships in a row?’” Thomas said. He credited the school culture and inertia from the previous championship years.
“I think winning breeds winning,” Thomas said. “It’s a tradition that the students come in and they not only have high expectations of themselves, but we have high expectations of them.”
The class went over the 39 lessons from the We The People textbook in the fall semester because it closely aligns with the AP curriculum. In spring semester, they will go over separate AP curriculum in addition to preparing three new speeches for the National Finals.
We The People topics are broken into six units, ranging from the philosophical building blocks of American politics to 21st-century challenges to American democracy. Each unit has three main questions, given to teachers and students around the start of school in the fall.
Three to five students focus on each unit, writing a four-minute speech for each question. The students are asked one question in district competition. They begin with the speech and then face six minutes of follow-up questions from an expert panel of judges like in a congressional hearing. The panel members are legal scholars, professors, attorneys, judges and teachers, among other professions.
They are graded from 1-10 in six areas: understanding, Constitutional application, reasoning, supporting evidence, responsiveness and participation.
At the state competition, students answer the two questions not asked at district. It follows the same procedure of four-minute speech followed by six minutes of questioning, which is a better gauge of students’ knowledge of the material. Strannigan said the process reminds him of a graduate student defending a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation.
SHS took third overall in the district competition Dec. 4 in Casper, where the top four teams advance. In the seven weeks leading up to state, the students put in extra time and received help from SHS seniors who went through the program last year, part of the reason why they kept the winning streak intact.
“The two questions that we had left, we really tore them apart,” student Samantha Lamb said. “We broke them down and took in a lot of the criticism that we got at district and changed a whole bunch of stuff.”
Lamb was a member of unit two, along with Patrick Hamilton and Cody Stults. The group had the highest SHS unit score at state. Unit two dealt with questions on federalists versus anti-federalists, debates about representation and the Articles of Confederation.
Having three people instead of four or five made it easier to be on the same page but entailed more individual work.
Hamilton and Stults did most of the speechwriting, while Lamb mainly edited. The group also met once per week with instructional facilitator Kim Ferguson, who assists all units with their speaking, listening and writing.
“It takes a certain type of composure,” Ferguson said. “Not fidgeting, sitting up straight, looking at the judges. Sometimes they do get nervous and that has been part of the skill that I help them with.”
This is Ferguson’s seventh year at SHS. She has helped We The People every year and bridged the gap during Thomas’ first year.
Students meet with Ferguson whenever they have free time, be it before or after school, during lunch or study hall. Time is of the essence, so students write their speeches on Google Docs and Ferguson gives suggestions in the document.
In competition, speeches are cut off at the four-minute mark, so Ferguson helped students trim down superfluous parts that didn’t directly address the question.
Lamb said the team built chemistry along the way and the members are really good at building off each other’s answers. They can also bring up counterpoints to their teammates’ argument in a respectful manner.
“Looking back, it might seem a little dull for a lot of citizens to read old documents, but you find something very beautiful in that our founders were able to ultimately compromise and form a more perfect union,” Hamilton said. “It’s something that all of us can learn from today.”
Stults said most of the writings in the Federalist Papers still apply today, 230 years after initial publication.
SHS won a regional award at least year’s national competition, finishing as the top school — outside of the top 10 overall schools — from the Mountain/Plains States region, which includes Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
The team aims to win another regional award this year.
Strannigan commended the all-around effort.
“The Sheridan kids and the alumni and the community stepped up, and good for Sheridan,” he said. “It’s good for the rest of the state (too), because everybody wants to knock them off the pinnacle, so all the rest of the schools see how hard they have to work. And hard work in this program translates to, ‘How much are you going to learn?’ And I think the winners then are the citizens of this state.”
To hear everyone involved tell it, the fifth consecutive state championship was a collaborative effort from a wide swath of citizens. We The People, indeed.