LOS ANGELES – High school students in the Southland and nationwide are encouraged by the Bill of Rights Institute to compete in an essay contest about what it means to be an American, with prize money and an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., up for grabs.

The “Being an American Essay Contest,” explores the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship.

About 50,000 entries were received last year, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, which is devoted to educating children about the Constitution and the nation’s founding principles.

In their essays, students are asked to address the question: What civic value do you believe is most essential to being an American?

The essay must be submitted through a teacher, according to contest rules.

The top three student winners from nine regions across the country will be announced at a awards gala in the nation’s capital in spring 2011, said Rachel Gillespie of Bill of Rights Institute.

The first-place winners from each region will receive $5,000, with $1,000 going to second-place finishers and $500 for third place, according to Gillespie.

In addition, $100 will be given to seven students who received honorable mentions from each of the nine regions, according to the organization’s website.

The winning students will be able to bring along one parent and their sponsoring teacher to explore Washington, meet national leaders and visit historic landmarks.

All the information necessary to enter the contest can be found at www.beinganamerican.org.