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Bucks students win Citizenship Challenge

“Which part of the Bill of Rights do you think is the most important and continues to exert the greatest impact today?”

When this question was put before students in Linda Raitt’s classroom, a consensus was, initially, hard to come by. After all, the 23 Buckingham Elementary School fifth-graders were taking part in an essay contest that promotes civic engagement, and engaged these students certainly were, their teacher recalled.

“My class had some pretty big debates,” said Raitt,
“and we decided we couldn’t come down to one amendment because we felt the First Amendment was the most important amendment for all of us. ... But we felt the biggest impact on our school and for our lives was the Second Amendment, which is the right to bear arms.”

Instead of settling on one they chose both – exercising their First Amendment right of free speech to take a stand against gun violence – and in doing so won the Rendell Center for Civics and Civic Engagement’s 2019 Citizenship Challenge.

Established in 2014, the Citizenship Challenge is an annual civics essay contest for fourth- and fifth-graders.

“Classroom teams are asked to write an essay that addresses their point of view on the assigned issue,” the Rendell Center website states. “Teams take one position and defend their argument in a concise written document of a minimum of 300 words. The contest is drawn from Pa. Civics standards relating to principles and documents of government; rights and responsibilities of citizens; and information on how government works.”

The top 10 finalists are invited to make a final presentation during a televised broadcast at the National Constitution Center in December during Bill of Rights Week.

Judge Marjorie Rendell, who co-founded the center with former Gov. Ed Rendell, visited Buckingham Elementary School on Feb. 6 and presented Raitt’s class with books for a civics library as well as a $1,000 check to further their civics education. The money, Raitt said, will be used for a trip to Harrisburg, where students plan on touring the capitol, meeting with lawmakers and learning more about state government.

Judge Rendell was joined at the check presentation by Beth Specker, executive director of the Rendell Center for Civics and Civic Engagement. Special guests also included Dr. John Kopicki, Central Bucks School District superintendent; Dr. Nadine Garvin, Central Bucks School District assistant superintendent for elementary education; Scott Berger, district social studies supervisor; and Dan Estep, Buckingham Elementary principal.

During her visit to Buckingham Elementary, Rendell praised the students for their originality and the clever way in which they wove together the First and Second Amendment in one essay. The students’ essay presentation, which they repeated on Feb. 6, included a musical performance in which the fifth-graders expressed, through song, that gun violence and school shootings must stop.

“We want our young citizens to understand the Constitution and understand how it affects your daily life,” Rendell told the students at the check presentation, which was also attended by Buckingham Elementary sixth-graders. “And that’s what they did. It was really impactful.”

Committed to bolstering civics education, the Rendell Center created the Citizenship Challenge with the goal of helping the next generation of citizens understand their civic rights and responsibilities. In addition to promoting such literacy skills as reading and research, the contest encourages students to express their views on issues that are meaningful to them, Pennsylvania’s former first lady said.

The contest, which began in the Philadelphia area, expanded to Pittsburgh two years ago. In 2019 the contest received more than 220 entries and Rendell’s hope is that many more classrooms across the commonwealth will join Raitt’s fifth-graders in taking the Citizenship Challenge.

“The fact that someone like Mrs. Raitt is taking time to have the kids perform and write an essay – outside the regular curriculum – is really special,” Rendell said.

While thanking the judge and the Rendell Center, Raitt noted that 125 students at Buckingham Elementary have participated in the Citizenship Challenge over the last five years. Raitt’s class finished second in 2018.

The 2019 Citizenship Challenge winners are: Gwen Alemao, Logan Arnold, Lexi Biruk, Constantine Cooper, Angelina Dan, Chase Donohue, Meghan Ellixson, Payton Karas, Aidan Koestler, Alora Meitzner, Owen Metzger, Dane Molnar, Nick Orlando, John Parker, Lia Picciotti, Jack Rogers, Ella Rowcliff, James Ruch, Matthew Rudy, Cari Ruiz, Kiran Sticker, Addison Tanner and Maddie Young.