Schuyler Berland has always had an inside look at the world of American government.
His mother, Huntington Town Councilwoman Susan Berland, began running for elected office when he was in first grade.
But that’s not what ignited his civic passion, he said; it was a few years later, when he was in fourth grade and took politics into his own hands.
“I petitioned my elementary school for bagel day and was successful,” said Berland, 17, of Dix Hills. “That’s when I learned how our government works. It comes down to the people who are putting in that effort toward the change they desire.”
Now a senior at Half Hollow Hills High School East, Berland has had the opportunity to pursue his passion on a deeper level as a part of We The People, an academic program for seniors that combines the Advanced Placement Government curriculum with a more concentrated focus on the Constitution.
Teams from around the country compete in regional, state and national competitions, which challenge the students in a mock constitutional hearing.
The Half Hollow Hills East team, made up of 18 students and advised by social studies teacher David Pitman, has made it all the way to the national competition this year, in which it will be tested by some of the nation’s most high-powered judges, Pitman said.
On top of the academic challenge, the team is also facing a financial one. This is the first year the program lost its funding, leaving the burden of a trip to the competition in Washington, D.C., up to the students.
“The trip used to cost significantly less” because it was funded by the Center for Civic Education and the New York State Bar Association would also sponsor part of the trip’s cost, Pitman said. “It’s almost double the financial responsibility on the kids this year that it has been in years past.”
The four-day trip will cost each student about $1,100, Pitman said. But the team has banded together in a fundraising effort and is looking to raise about $12,000 to offset the cost of the trip, which takes place April 27 to May 1.
Jessica Gaseard, the team’s treasurer, said the group has been fundraising since January by enlisting the help of local restaurants, which donate 10 to 20 percent of their profits on specific nights, and selling candy. They are also taking individual donations.
Gaseard, 17, of Dix Hills, said the team has worked so hard throughout the entire experience, first getting onto the team, then preparing for competitions, and now trying to get toward their final goal.
“Our school has gone to nationals every year,” she said. “We want to prove to ourselves that we can do this, too.”
Berland said We The People is an important component to his education, and he hopes to get the opportunity to prove what he has learned.
“We basically learn how we became an American society,” he said. “We are the next generation of citizens that are learning the American Constitution and how we can use it.”