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Lincoln Middle School wins annual Alachua County Civics Challenge

The team of seventh graders from Lincoln Middle School whispered as they pondered the question: How many U.S. Supreme Court justices must agree for one side to win its case?

"Five," answered Henry Palmer, 12, as Simon Ropicki, Priya Sabat and Ansley Hiebert, all 13, looked on during a "Family Feud"-style civics competition held Wednesday at the Alachua County Administration Building in Gainesville.

“Correct,” said Raymond Carr, a history professor at Newberry High School, the competition moderator who had asked the question.

Carr then explained the answer to the team from Westwood Middle School, which during its turn had said that six justices were needed.

The Lincoln team was on its way to earning 417 out of a possible 600 points – and first place in the school district’s seventh annual Alachua County Civics Challenge.

“I’m going to run into school this afternoon and yell with excitement,” the team’s head coach, civics teacher Patrick Penny, said after hearing the news. “I’m pretty happy about it.”

A total of 49 students from six middle schools competed in the competition, which was split into two parts. First, each student took a 100-question exam based on the seventh grade curriculum.

Then, five-member teams rotated against each other in civics-oriented “Family Feud” contests. One student per team stood at a table to begin each round. A moderator read the question, and whoever hit their button first got the chance to earn a point with a correct answer. If so, the team got a three-point question. If incorrect, their opponents could steal with the right answer.

Questions ranged from the equal protection clause to Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” pamphlet, with most of them involving democracy and the responsibilities of citizens.

Janice Garry, president of The League of Women Voters of Alachua County, said the competition cost about $4,000. Her organization, one of the event’s sponsors, contributed $1,500, and private donations funded the remaining amount, Garry said.

“It’s really a nice thing,” she said.

Lighthearted team disputes occurred throughout the day. For example, Lara Castineyra, 13, and Brooke Howe, 12, seventh graders at Kanapaha Middle School, exchanged friendly jabs amid disagreements over warrants, probable cause and different constitutional amendments.

“I don’t care if you guess right,” Castineyra said at one point. “Buzz fast.”

“I care,” Howe replied.

Both cheered on their teammates, though, with their common refrain: Honk! There were happy honks. Encouraging honks. Shy honks.

County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler had earlier handed out papers titled “Lessons from Geese” before the first round. Kanapaha’s team No. 1 took her advice with an enthusiastic honk.

One of the other points in Wheeler’s paper was the importance of a community. For 14-year-old Jayce Edwards, a member of Kanapaha’s team No. 2, his team was a small part of that.

Jayce raced to the table with the buzzer when it was his turn to answer a question.

“Are you a track runner?” Carr asked in a moment of levity.

“Yeah,” Jayce said, his head tilted, his back hunched and his hand hovering over the device.

Laura Dampier, 59, was also ready. She’s the grandmother of Kenneth Day, 12, of Mebane Middle School. She followed Day to every room he went. By the sixth round, he had missed a handful of questions, like every student who participated. Dampier knew he would bounce back.

“I’m very confident,” she said. “He’s very smart.”

Dampier said her grandson is autistic and has ADHD. Seeing him participate and answer questions correctly made her hopeful.

“My heart just jumps up and down inside,” the grandmother said. “It gives me hope that he has a good, sturdy future.”

Jon Rehm, the school district’s social studies curriculum specialist, said he hopes to see future student engagement in the next two virtual civics competitions. Seventh graders will compete Tuesday and eleventh graders will compete April 25.

Liana is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing