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Casey Christie / The Californian

After putting on an outstanding presentation with his unit 2 team from Arvin High School, Jose Gurrola, receives a congratulatory kiss from his mother, Olivia Gurrola. This was during the annual "We the People," competition that tests high school students on constitutional knowledge, Saturday, at North High School.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Dr. Jim Young congratulates an Arvin High "We the People," competitor, Saturday, at North High during the annual event. Young helps coach, Robert Ruckman, coach the students in the constitutional knowledge competition.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Arvin High head coach for the "We the People," team Robert Ruckman, center, and assistant coach, Dr. Jim Young, right, encourage one of several Arvin teams, Saturday, at North High before one of the morning competition sessions. The students left to right are, Jose Gurrola, Yanira Martinez, Bryan Cervantes, Nopjira Wongvithoothai, and not seen, is Cecilia Vazquez, talking to Jim Young.

If you've ever had occasion to shake your head and grumble about "kids these days," you should attend the academic competitions known as "We the People."

What you will find -- as many did at Saturday's event at North High School -- are hundreds of sharply dressed, well-mannered, studious, intelligent teenagers who will blow you away with their knowledge of the concepts and documents upon which our nation was founded. Not only that. It's fun to watch.

"Good job! We're on the hunt!" Arvin High Assistant Coach Larry Hallum told his team during a short break in the action Saturday.

"We just kicked a field goal," Hallum continued with his sports metaphor-filled pep talk. "I just wish we had scored a touchdown."

Arvin must have scored several touchdowns Saturday, because at the end of the daylong academic contest, the team was named the overall winner for the third year running.

"It took a lot of hard work, but it paid off," said Arvin senior Blaine Mustoe, the team captain.

"This is a great tradition at Arvin High School," Mustoe continued as his teammates and coaches celebrated at Rosemary's Creamery. "As freshmen, we saw upperclassmen walking around campus with their medals. This year, we wanted to continue that tradition."

Saturday's Region 4 competition saw 13 Kern County high schools competing for a chance to win either the 20th or 22nd Congressional District title, depending on the district in which they were seeded. Arvin took home the 20th District trophy, while Centennial High repeated last year's win in the 22nd.

"Arvin emerged in close scoring as the overall regional champion based on the total combined scores of two rounds of hearings," according to a news release for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, which coordinated the event. That means Arvin will represent Kern County in the state championships held during the first week of February in Sacramento. But Centennial may still have a way in. Last year, Centennial and third-place finisher Foothill High were wild card selections.

So how does a school like Arvin win three regional championships in three years? Large numbers of students in the little farming community speak English as a second language. Many didn't grow up learning American history or enjoying the unique rights laid out in the Constitution.

"I tell my students hard work will overcome any disadvantage," said Arvin coach Robert Ruckman, who competed on Arvin's team in 1998. "If you're willing to work, I'm willing to be there with you every step of the way."

Most teams begin in June, adding 10 or more hours a week to the students' already packed schedules. Then it picks up in September.

"You get into class and start working, working, working," said 17-year-old Ryan Chapman, a member of Centennial's high-performing team.

The work is rewarding, too.

"I've really enjoyed this," Chapman added. "I've learned a lot and had a lot of fun."

Instead of wearing shoulder pads and helmets, these competitors are armed with knowledge, reams of information and the ability to answer tough, penetrating questions from judges -- on the spot. The schools don't compete head-to-head. Each team individually presents testimony in a series of mock congressional hearings.

"Why have First-Amendment rights been so important," one judge asked a five-member unit of Arvin's 29-member team.

Without pausing, Arvin student Christian Montoya began: "The First Amendment is central to a free society for five reasons."

Then in rapid-fire delivery, the five students answered the question, dividing the effort as each asserted a specific point. In a way it all comes down to 20 minutes. All those hours and days and weeks of preparation are compressed like an explosive gas down to a maximum of 20 minutes of competition for each student.

Besides learning how to perform under pressure, what students ultimately discover is that the intensive study helps them understand the American system of government, the genius of the Constitution, the concept of the wall of separation -- and especially the critical need for Americans to actively participate in their own governance.

Golden Valley team member Ryan Perkins, 17, said he's learned that federal laws may clash with state laws and sometimes with individual rights. But the Constitution is not just a bunch of abstract concepts.

"It affects us in our everyday lives," he said.