Long Beach Poly government and economics teacher Jeff Montooth called it “a teacher’s dream” to give students the opportunity to apply lessons from the classroom to current events. For the past decade, that’s what Montooth’s students have been able to experience with C-SPAN’s annual StudentCam competition.

To participate, teams of students from all across the country submit five- to six-minute documentary films on a given topic, conducting their own research while interviewing experts in those fields. This year’s competition topic was, “How does the federal government impact your life?” and there was $100,000 in cash prizes divided among the winners.

This was a banner year for the Jackrabbits, who had 18 students earn recognition across seven different teams. Those students claimed a combined $4,000 in prize money from the competition.

“This is one of our best years in terms of the number of winners and the places they got,” Montooth said. “We made 90 documentaries this year, and when I was done watching I felt like that was the strongest batch of videos we’ve made, and we’ve been doing this for 10 years. The overall quality just keeps getting better.”

In Poly’s nationally-acclaimed PACE academy, government and economics is a class offered to ninth graders, meaning Montooth’s students were often going up against students two to three years older than them from high schools across America.

Still, Poly’s freshmen more than held their own, led by a second-place finish by Caden Kawamura and Emerson LaPorta for their documentary on homelessness, which earned the duo a cash prize of $1,500.

The Jackrabbits also had a pair of third-place finishes, with Sebastian Fonseca and Sarah Madden being recognized for their documentary on FEMA and disaster response, and the trio of Alivia Seard, Anya Murrell, and Ivy Bragg-Guzman winning third prize for their film “An Imperfect Union: Hate Crime Legislation in America.”

Madden and Fonseca interviewed an impressive list of experts in the field, including representatives from FEMA and the American Red Cross, plus the director of emergency management for Los Angeles County.

Madden said the most rewarding part of the experience was being able to engage with the classroom experience in a different way.

“For me, it was that I could connect the dots from school to real life,” said Madden. “This (project) just really did it for me, because I could see real people, real situations. It actually helped me connect school to real life, which I think was a very valuable experience for me.”

No group had that real-world connection more than Seard’s, who saw the Emmett Till Antilyniching Act passed just weeks after their documentary on hate crime legislation was submitted.

“The biggest reward for me was seeing what my group and I could do; learning how to learn and investigate,” said Seard, who recalled the hours spent looking through Congressional roll calls along with her teammates. “For the rest of my high school career, I think I can take that as a bit of motivation, knowing that I was able to push through and create something that I am proud of and that our group is proud of.”

This year’s class also had four videos that earned honorable mention status, including documentaries about student loans, the U.S. farm bill, the realities of life in Los Angeles, and the impacts of the Affordable Care Act during the COVID-19 pandemic. The trio of students exploring the latter topic—Tejus Deo Dixit, Ruthie Heis, and Dia Rubio—were just infants when the ACA was passed back in 2010. They not only got a closer look at the nuances of U.S healthcare policy, but also a recent example of how it functioned during a global health crisis.

“I learned that the Affordable Care Act was, for one thing, revolutionary,” said Rubio. “Almost everyone we spoke to had personal stories about how it bettered their life, but it also showed me that not everything revolutionary is necessarily enough. As the child of an educator, I’ve always had pretty dependable healthcare, but working on this project helped me see that healthcare coverage and equality is a really big issue that still needs a lot of work.”

While interviewing a handful of doctors and healthcare experts, Deo Dixit said he was taken by the variability in perspectives that the team uncovered.

“It was interesting to see the differences in their responses,” he said. “Their opinions were somewhat constant, but there were many different points of view that they expressed. It was interesting to see that they could all still work together in their field.”

According to Heis, a trend that presented itself over the course of the team’s research was the pandemic’s heightened impact on Black, Indigenous, people of color and low-income communities.

“We noticed when we looked at the actual numbers, we saw how in the COVID pandemic there were a lot more deaths in these communities than in other communities, so we looked at how this healthcare system is failing them,” Heis explained. “The more we looked at the Affordable Care Act, and the more we investigated Medicare and Medicaid and our current healthcare system in general, it’s not as perfect as we thought. There’s a lot of missing pieces.”

In addition to the students mentioned above, eight other Poly students received recognition for their submissions to this year’s StudentCam competition: Tika Jonnum and Shakinat Oladepo; Avery Shirbroun, Mikayla Shekell, and Dylan Aulenta; plus Lily Danks, Harper Hogan and Sate You.

Poly students weren’t the only winners out of Long Beach, however. A trio of Millikan Rams—Jake Ritter, Exly Lundahl, and Hendrix Crouther—earned an honorable mention nod for their documentary film about supply chain issues following the pandemic, titled “Something in the Water.”

Each year, the StudentCam competition awards prizes to the top 150 student documentaries and has given out more than $1.2 million to students and teachers since 2004.