Milford High’s We the People program busy ‘creating great citizens’
Thursday, February 21, 2013
MILFORD – We can’t know for sure, but we think there might be more graduates of Milford High School working, or about to work, in politics or governmentthan from any other high school in the state.
There is Nicole Caravella, Class of 2006, who is a policy advisor for John Kerry, the new Secretary of State.
There is Tom Parisi, Class of 2006, who just finished law school at George Mason University and is interning with the privacy team at Facebook’s Washington office.
And then there is Will Allen, Class of 2005, an officer in the U.S. Marine Corp. who is attending Columbia University for a masters degree in Islamic studies.
Amber Barbagallo, Class of 2008, is Senate Caucus Finance Director for the New Hampshire Democratic Party.
Kristen Bokhan, Class of 2006, a legal assistant at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) in Boston.
Other recent graduates include Jessica Wamala, who will graduate from Villanova University this year and is a recipient of the Truman Scholarship for students committed to careers in public service, and Jillian Joyce, who just returned from a semester abroad at the University of Oxford and is studying politics at Villanova.
Pamela King is a reporter with E&E Publishing, covering workforce and education issues as they pertain to unconventional oil and gas.
All of those young professionals are graduates of a school within a school – Milford High’s We the People program.
Over the program’s 15 years, teacher-coach Dave Alcox has helped juniors and seniors gain knowledge of the U.S. Constitution to prepare them for the statewide We the People contest.
He has done it with impressive results – Milford teams have won the state contest 11 of the past 15 years.
Alcox is proud that his teams win year after year but also proud that last year’s team scored 1,815 points, a state record, and also won four unit awards. Only five unit awards went to New Hampshire teams.
The competition is set up like a congressional hearing, and each team is divided up into six units, each composed of three or more students. Each unit focuses on a particular area of Constitutional interest, from the philosophical foundations of the American political system to current challenges to American Constitutional democracy.
Unit topics stay the same each year, but the questions change.
Alcox has been teaching the class and coaching the team since it started as American History 1 in the late 1990s.
The first team was made up of sophomores and they competed against Hollis seniors and came in second.
After that, Principal Brad Craven and Richard Verrill, then dean of academic studies, supported a move to make the course an elective so the teacher could concentrate on the Constitution.
Alcox, who attended a week-long seminar at Indiana University to prepare for the class, now teaches aspiring We the People teachers at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island.
He says Milford’s program has flourished over the years because of Milford school officials’ support.
“Bob Suprenant (superintendent of schools) is a real friend of the program,” he said. “The big thing is that the school has to be behind it.”
This year’s team is now raising money for their trip to Washington in April, and Alcox said each year he is amazed by the community’s support.
We the People is an Advanced Placement course, but it’s open to any junior or senior “who wants to work hard and improve themselves,” said Alcox.
One of the exciting things about teaching the course is watching some students blossom.
Two years ago Roderick Creary, who came from Jamaica, “was petrified to compete in front of people, and he turned into one of the top kids” on this year’s team, said Alcox.
That kind of experience is thrilling for a teacher, and “reaffirms the reason why we teach,” he said,
And it doesn’t stop. The students “go to college and send emails with stories that just make you glow, as when college teachers ask the students, ‘How did you know that?’”
Judges for the national competition are some of the country’s leading Constitutional scholars, “a veritable Who’s Who in the field,” said Alcox, including John Kaminsky, of the University of Wisconsin, one of the key historians the Milford teams rely on when they do their research.
We the People is a natural fit for a medium-sized New Hampshire town like Milford, Alcox said.
“We are so politically-oriented – look at the Labor Day parade,” and the state’s long history as the first primary state, and the fact that the president of the state Senate and a former Executive Councilor are from Milford, Alcox explained.
Strong community support is another reason the program is so successful, said Alcox.
“We live in a community that is very giving, and people here love to see kids do good things.”
Tom Parisi, who will soon be an Honors Attorney at the Federal Communications Commission, said We the People inspired his great interest in Washington D.C. and in how the capital works.
His favorite memory was spending the day on the lawn of the Georgetown University campus studying with his team.
“Everyone wanted to be there and do their best,” he said. “It was an unforgettable experience.”
And that’s why, he said, alumnae are always willing to come back and help the current team, sometimes two or three times.
Kristen Bokham said she will never forget her team’s unusual fundraising project.
“The Knights of Columbus let us bring a ton of sand into their hall for a beach dance to raise funds for WTP,” she wrote in an email.
Bokham is now a legal assistant at Gay & Lesbian Advocate & Defenders in Boston, the first LGBT organization to challenge the Defense of Marriage Act. She said We the People helped her understand “the incredible impact that the law has on our civil liberties and our lives.”
Bokham said she remembers reading Lawrence vs. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court decision that struck down Texas’s sodomy law and made same-sex sexual activity legal in every state, “and understanding that a case about an antiquated and largely unenforceable law could change how the nation viewed the rights of an entire class of people.”
But the best part of We the People, she said, was how it taught her to challenge herself and follow her own interests.
“I became fascinated with religious liberty and church/state issues,” she wrote, “I gained so much confidence, because I got to become an ‘expert’ on a subject that interested me.
“I still remember when a judge in our state competition told me he couldn’t think of any other religion cases to stump me with.”
Bokham, who is getting ready to enter law school, remembers that professors in her master’s degree program nicknamed her the Devil’s Advocate, because “I always like to bring up the other side to an issue, whether I agreed with it or not.”
Robert Leming, the director of We the People, at the Center for Civic Education, said Alcox’s “success in New Hampshire is self-evident.”
The aim of the program is not to build politicians, he told The Cabinet, but to let students know they must be watchdogs of government.
“What should government be doing? What shouldn’t it be doing?” Leming said. “Kids who go through We the People are much better able to discuss that.”
Alcox says he tells his students they will retire from their jobs some day, but they never need retire from their roles as citizens.
That’s an idea that resonates with Will Allen, the Marine officer, who will attend Columbia University’s masters program in Islamic Studies next summer.
He and several other alumni said a key value of We the People is that it encourages students to take responsibility for their own education.
Success is measured “in research and depth of knowledge, the ability to communicate quickly and concisely,” he said in an email.
Few high schools, he says “have the distinct honor that Milford does of creating great citizens. What greater responsibility does a public school have than that?”
Kathy Cleveland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 673-3100, ex. 304.