South-side middle school students form academic team of champions

2013-08-25T00:00:00Z South-side middle school students form academic team of championsErnesto Portillo Jr. Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Challenger Middle School is not only home to Little League Softball champions. It is home to an academic team of champions.

The school’s government and civics team, known as We the People, earned honorable mention in a national competition in May at George Mason University in Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C. — in its first-ever competition.

“It was amazing,” said David Lopez, a 13-year-old Tohono O’odham eighth-grader.

Earlier this month, much of Tucson celebrated the victory of the Sunnyside Little League Softball team, which won the international championship in its age group. Six girls on the team attend Challenger.

But not to be overshadowed, 12 students from the south-side school collected awards in four of the six categories, all of which center on knowledge of the Constitution, government, U.S. Supreme Court rulings and U.S. political history. For the students, virtually all of whom had never flown before or visited the U.S. capital, the event was seminal in their young lives.

“It brought us all together,” said Victoria Polanco, 13, who traveled to Washington in May.

At the end of the school year, these Challenger students want to repeat the experience, accompanied by more classmates, and return with more hardware and accolades.

“Next year we want to bring all six trophies,” said Joelle Campa, a 13-year-old eighth-grader who also competed.

The students, under the tutelage of teacher Norma Higuera, are an impressive group. Friday, in their first-period class, the students — nearly all of whom are Latino and Tohono O’odham — spoke vigorously about a prevolutionary political philosopher who influenced the leaders of the 13 colonies.

“What did John Locke mean when he talked about the state of nature, natural rights and the social contract?” Higuera asked the class of nearly 30 students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

A forest of hands sprouted.

Higuera has been teaching social studies for 12 years, all at Challenger, a school in the Elvira neighborhood, under the flight path of Tucson International Airport.

For the past five years she has taught civics, which has become her passion. The subject matter would fly over the heads of most people — Shay’s Rebellion, Articles of Confederation, the Constitutional Convention, the Bill of Rights.

“Never has it been so critical...that American citizens have become disenfranchised for their lack of knowledge how their government works,” Higuera said.

Images and words posted are posted on the classroom’s walls, reflecting past and current civic lessons.

Her students not only learn to understand and appreciate civics, but they learn to articulate their thoughts in clear, strong voices, and to develop and use critical thinking skills.

One result, Higuera said, is that the students gain confidence in themselves and empower themselves.

The students themselves acknowledge that some of their friends consider the government class “nerdy,” but they say it’s fun.

More than fun, the students see value in the class. They understand that gaining knowledge strengthens them.

“People should know about our U.S. history and Constitution,” said Gage Pablo, an eighth-grade Tohono O’odham student who hopes to compete in Washington next May.

To return to the national competition, the students will compete to represent the state, as they did last year. The students and their families also have to raise thousands of dollars to travel.

For the trip in May they earned $27,000, primarily through fundraisers and from individuals, in 10 weeks to pay for the 12 students. Next year they hope 30 students will make the trip.

The students are selling candy and cookies, and holding car washes, said Alex Romero, a first-year student in the class.

However, they know they have to get beyond nickels and dimes. They’ll need large contributions from individuals, businesses and civic organizations if they qualify for Washington, D.C.

“We’re working smarter this year,” Higuera said.

Ernesto “Neto” Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at (520) 573-4187 or at netopjr@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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