BELOIT - Turner High School's civics team, proudly known as the Underdogs, are hoping to spank some of the competition from suburban schools they will compete against in the Wisconsin Newspaper Association's first Wisconsin Civics Games, set for Feb. 2.
They will be facing off against teams from Randolph, Waunakee, Madison Memorial, Lake Mills, Deforest, Madison West, Stoughton, Edgewood, Beaver Dam, Portage and Necedah. The two winning teams will go on to the state competition held at the Wisconsin State Capitol on Feb. 23.
The Wisconsin Newspaper Association (WNA) developed the statewide games to be held during the 2018-2019 academic year. The games are designed to boost civic engagement in a time of dwindling interest in current affairs and government.
While civics education may be on the decline around the state, at Turner the student team and a new teacher are fervently diving into study of federal, state and local government as well as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Shane Cassidy, a 24-year-old politics and advanced placement government and psychology teacher, learned about the new games from a Milton teacher and Superintendent Dennis McCarthy, who was alerted about the games by the Beloit Daily News. The newspaper is a member of WNA and a sponsor of the Turner team.
"We're thrilled to be involved," Editor Bill Barth said. "So much news is about the American system of self-government. In fact, we believe Americans who are ignorant and uninformed about civic affairs simply cannot participate effectively in a free society. We hope these games help prepare the next generation to do better."
Cassidy said it's critical students learn as much civics "as humanly possible" and went to round up his teams.
Cassidy said about 20 students were originally interested this fall, but some stepped away due to a conflict with another school activity planned for Feb. 2. Teams were required to have four students and it was a natural fit for four close friends - Ryan Sennett, Trey Griinke, Tyler Wallis and Brady Riedel.
The foursome were not only intrigued by a challenge, but wanted to win the $2,000 in scholarships each student receives if he or she is on the state's winning team.
The students started meeting once a week to study the two books provided by the WNA. Griinke learned most of the state's 72 counties within days. The team members decided to break up the books' chapters and each focus on a specialty. They learned everything from the demographics of Wisconsin's aging population and facts on municipal revenue to information on local elections for school boards.
"By making a game out of it and giving a cash incentive it's a good way to get kids excited about wanting to learn about politics," Cassidy said.
Cassidy, known for his drill-sergeant approach to academics and disdain for multiple choice tests, announced Tuesday he's also going to require the team to attend a town or school board meeting - much to the surprise of the Underdogs.
Although Cassidy is a new face at the high school, his students are well aware of his expectations and projects in his political science classes.
"I don't give multiple choice tests. I make them write a two-day long test, and have them write their own Declaration of Independence and Constitution," Cassidy said.
Sennett said his teacher helped team members learn a lot about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
"It's a good thing. He made us research candidates for a mock election. We ran a mock election," Griinke said.
During election season, students made their own campaign videos and researched all names on a sample ballot.
"We talked about how politicians influence elections during campaigns and in terms of politicians pulling the wool over people's eyes," he said. Students also spend a month on media literacy being required to find news articles and explore them in depth.
Despite his rigorous approach, the Underdogs said they like his classes and are eagerly looking forward to spending a Saturday with their civics leader in Madison. Cassidy said forming the team has been a great way to get to know the students better. He said he wanted to go into education after an inspiring teacher put him on the "straight and narrow," a path he hopes his students will take.
He's already preparing his team for the grueling weeks ahead.
"If we make it to the finals, you guys are going to have an extra class at the end of the day," Cassidy said.
According to the Wisconsin League of Municipalities, lack of civic engagement is becoming epidemic through counties, cities, villages and school districts in Wisconsin. It often results in more public offices being unchallenged during election cycles and a lack of interest in civic affairs.
In 56 percent of communities that responded to a recent WISTAX survey, there was at most one candidate for each board or council position. Only 5 percent of respondents said they typically had two or more candidates per seat according to the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.
With the public's declining interest in civics, there also follows a decline in newspaper readership. The Wisconsin Newspaper Association developed the statewide Wisconsin Civics games to be held during the 2018-2019 academic year.
During the last national civics assessment administered in 2010, less than half of 8th graders surveyed knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights and only one in 10 had an age appropriate understanding of checks and balances between the three branches of government, according to Civics 2010: the Nation's Report Card, from the National Assessment of Education Progress.
In recent years civics education in schools has been on the decline. Prior to the 1960s, high schoolers took three courses in civics and government and students often explored the role of citizens and discussed current events.