Wauwatosa West High School social studies teacher Chad Mateske said that ever since his We the People class won the state title about nine years ago, the pressure has been on to keep it.
And with each new school year, his students have succeeded in doing just that.
'We are proud of the streak that we have going right now,' he said. 'It does add pressure to each incoming group because they don't want to be the class where the streak is broken.'
We the People is a civics and government course found in schools nationwide. The curriculum's concept mimics a congressional hearing, said Mateske. The students dive into research in certain areas of public policy, and during competitions they simulate experts called to testify before Congress.
After students from Wauwatosa West once again won the state title this year, they headed to the national competition at the University of Maryland in April to compete against teams from across the country. Out of 54 schools at the national competition, members from the Wauwatosa team took the 11th spot and won the central states regional award.
'If you weren't going to finish in the top 10, the regional award is the next best thing,' Mateske said.
The often grueling national competition tested the weeks of preparation leading up to it. Students were informed of their topics toward the beginning of 2016 and then proceeded to research the given policy topics and brainstorm ways to respond to possible questions posed by the simulated Congress — the judges, Mateske said.
Policy topics included second amendment rights, religion and civil equality.
Mateske said the class is an important one as it teaches students that 'they will get out what they put in.' Many of his past students have gone on to pursue law degrees or have studied political science at the collegiate level.
'It does kind of open up their eyes to some career path options,' he said.
A class from Wauwatosa East High School also participated in the national finals.
About the class
While the course, held during first hour at Wauwatosa West High School, 11400 Center St., does qualify for government credits required to graduate, it offers somewhat of an extracurricular feel as much of the work happens outside the classroom, Mateske said.
Students must apply to get into the class, which has room for 30. Mateske examines writing samples, attendance and disciplinary efforts, and grades in prior social studies and English courses in order to make the selection. On average, about 40 students apply to be in the course every year.
The class uses teacher assistants from previous years who offer insight on how to be successful in the course and at competitions. Student Nicole Mystrow was enrolled in the class last year as a junior and currently serves as a TA, helping with 'some pretty tough concepts,' she said. Mystrow has helped with practice sessions called dry runs and educated students on how to balance the course with other responsibilities.
'I think this class is worthwhile because it teaches the kids that go through it how to communicate and work in small groups which is a skill that is very valuable in many different work environments,' she said. 'Also I think the class is worthwhile because it will give you memories that you will remember forever and you get to compete and make friends while doing so.'
Another unique aspect of the course is the incorporation of professional attorney mentors.
Thomas Schneck, a practicing lawyer in the Milwaukee and Waukesha area, became involved with the class after Mateske learned he was a lawyer, and reached out, asking him to get involved. Two of Schneck's children participated in the course, said Schneck, who gradually became more involved, helping to edit work, ask questions during practice sessions and mentor students. Even though his own children are no longer in the class, he has remained involved, devoting about six hours per week from October to April.
'I will say that my involvement with this program has been the most satisfying thing I have ever done,' he said.
Schneck added he hopes more schools will bring the same curriculum into their own communities. According to the program's website, wethepeople.civiced.org, since its inception in 1987, more than 28 million students and 75,000 educators have participated in the We the People program.
'There is much criticism of today's youth as entitled, as expecting things to be handed to them, and for not really understanding what hard work is all about,' he said. 'The kids who go through this program understand what hard work is. They understand what being judged is like, and although they are whip smart to begin with, pushing them out of their comfort zone and digging deeper to address these topics and to articulate their thoughts in a meaningful, intelligent way gives them such an advantage over their contemporaries.'
Mark Young, a private practice attorney in Wauwatosa, also mentors the class and has done so ever since his son Reggie was enrolled in it.
'If it were not so rewarding and fun I would not keep coming back,' he said. 'Chad is such an extraordinary teacher, able to draw out the full focus and energies of the students, leading them to want to do their absolute best, which he achieves year after year.'