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Two Students From White Mountain Headed to Civics Bee State Final

Denah Barr and McKenna Smith pose for a photo. Photo courtesy of Tatiana Barr.

Two middle schoolers from White Mountain School are headed to Anchorage for the state finals of the National Civics Bee. The students were selected as finalists for the competition now entering its third year.

McKenna Smith and Denah Barr will compete at the event June 13 in Anchorage. The soon-to-be eighth graders submitted essays to the competition back in February and were among ten finalists selected statewide.

Barr’s entry focused on addressing the issue of loose dogs in her community, proposing solutions such as petitions to raise awareness and garner community support.

“I wanted to fix the problem,” Barr explained.

The National Civics Bee will test competitors on their knowledge of government, history, and civic responsibilities. To prepare for the competition, Denah Barr has studied the U.S. Constitution, Articles of Confederation, and U.S. history. 

Her oldest sister, Tatiana Chanar, has watched her sibling grow up alongside Smith.

“I’m very proud for Denah and the community. McKenna is Denah’s friend and classmate. It’s really cool to see these two young women make a name for themselves and represent the community,” Chanar said. 

Barr’s mother, Janet Amuktoolik, plans to give her youngest daughter words of encouragement when she begins her journey to Anchorage on Tuesday. 

“Just do your best, that’s all you could do, have fun, and we’re right behind you cheering you on at home,” Amuktoolik said. 

Getting Involved

Barr became involved in the Civics Bee through her teacher, Joanne Wassillie. The Social Studies Teacher and Academic Decathlon Coach looks for opportunities for her students to challenge themselves and learn and grow. 

“I read it in one of my emails about a new civics bee that was going to be held in Alaska for the first time. So I read the instructions, read the description, and I said, ‘Yeah, my students can do this.’” Wassillie recalled. 

Wassillie shared the idea with her class, letting them know it would be extra work that they would need to do outside of class. Three students offered to participate in the project, with Wassillie’s only guidance being that they needed to write about a subject they were “really interested in”. 

The students chose issues related to animal care, drafted their essays, and submitted them to the competition. Just a few weeks later, Wassillie received a notice that two students were selected. 

“I was just ecstatic. I was just jumping for joy and yelling, it’s one thing to have one kid go but to have two is so special,” Wassillie said. 

For a community as small and remote as White Mountain, having two finalists is an achievement. But as Wassillie believes, that should never hold her students back.

“I believe our students are just as capable and just as deserving to go out and be a part of the 'bigger picture'. I've always firmly believed in my students, they’re just as good as anyone else from anywhere.”

The students’ journey to the finals has been supported by their families and the community. The community raised $1,500 to cover airfare, although additional support is requested to cover other costs like housing and sightseeing opportunities. 

Wassillie will accompany the students to Anchorage and ensure they make the most of their experience. Donations to the trip can be arranged by contacting her at 907-658-0301. 

Finalists will receive prizes, including $1,000 cash for the first-place winner.

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