In the world of Academic Decathlon you won’t see bone-crushing tackles or buzzer-beating three pointers. There are no trash-talking parents or bench-clearing brawls. Still, these events can be thrillingly competitive and require as much dedication and preparation as any sport. These intellectual gladiators train relentlessly, challenging themselves mentally the same way athletes do physically.
Ponderosa High School has won the regional contest 23 years in a row; teams from Oak Ridge, Union Mine and El Dorado high schools would love nothing more than to dethrone them. Competitions will be held on Feb. 1 & 4.
Ponderosa’s Academic Decathletes aren’t resting on their laurels. Recently Village Life met up with Ponderosa’s diligent decathletes to see how they prepare for the competition.
“It would be kinda embarrassing to be the team that breaks the streak,” said Jack Rodriguez, a junior who joined the Academic Decathlon team this year. “I have faith in my teammates. I think we’ll keep it for another year, at least.”
So what is the secret sauce that keeps Ponderosa winning year after year? Sarah Shintaku, Ponderosa’s faculty advisor for the last four years, narrows it down to momentum and a lot of hard work. “Because we have such a history (of winning) a lot of kids want to get involved,” she said. “It’s hard to get teenagers to study for fun. Without a lot of willing participants it’s hard to build a strong team.”
Getting students interested is just the beginning.
“Mostly nagging and paperwork are my main duties,” Shintaku joked. At the outset she provides students with packets containing all the information from which test questions will be drawn. The students study individually, then meet after school to review the material, hear guest lectures on specific subjects or practice public speaking and essay writing. When we visited the team was playing Kahoot, a computer-based quiz game that echoes the format of the actual tests.
“Academic Decathletes take 30-minute multiple choice tests in the subjects of art, economics, music, language and literature, mathematics, science and social science,” states adacemicdecathlon.org, the official website of California Academic Decathlon. “In addition, each team member gives a planned four-minute speech and a two-minute impromptu speech, participates in a seven-minute interview and has 50 minutes to write an expository essay.”
Every year United States Academic Decathlon selects a theme and publishes study materials. Past themes have included the Great Depression, the French Revolution and the Renaissance. This year’s theme is World War II.
“History is super interesting to me,” said Rodriguez excitedly. “My grandparents were in the Philippines during the war and they told stories about the Japanese occupation … I just love history so this theme was great for me.”
Rodriguez also counts music among his strong subjects. “I play an instrument and already know a lot about theory,” he said. His toughest subject is art, about which he said he’s mostly disinterested. “I’d rather be playing music,” he said with a laugh.
“Most kids know they have a subject that’s not for them but they also have one that they’re strong in,” Shintaku explained. “So it balances out.”
How does she encourage students who are struggling with a subject?
“Nagging,” was her concise response.
Participation in Academic Decathlon benefits students in a variety of ways, both personally and academically. “It promotes better studying skills and better study habits,” said Jack Rodriguez. “It’s helped develop confidence in (my) abilities.”
“There’s a lot of crossover with their other classes,” Shintaku pointed out. “For seniors, some of it is review but the younger students get a preview of (material they’ll encounter) later.” Juniors and seniors also qualify for college credits through California State University, Sacramento.
Dina Gentry, communications director at the El Dorado County Office of Education, is an organizer for the regional competition.
“This year we welcome El Dorado County’s Golden Sierra High School and Ghidotti Early College High School from Nevada County,” Gentry wrote in an email.
Can one of the new teams upset the perennial champs and advance to the state finals? The Ponderosa squad thinks the dynasty is safe, but team members aren’t taking any chances.
“Ghidotti scored well at the meet in December,” Jack said. “If they put together a full team and they do as well as they did at the meet, they could beat us.”
More than 500 students from around the capital region matched wits at the Sacramento State contest in December. Larger teams like Ponderosa use results from the Sacramento scrimmage to determine their rosters for regional contests in February.
Competing rosters consist of 12 students — nine actives and three alternates. Teams field three competitors in each of three divisions. Divisions are based on grade-point average: Honors for 4.0 and up, Scholastic for 3.0-3.99 and Varsity for 2.99 and below. Students vie for individual honors in each of the 10 subjects and the team score is calculated by adding all the teammates’ individual scores across all divisions and subjects. The result of the Super Quiz Relay is also added to the team score.
The Super Quiz Relay, in which the entire team participates, is the only part of the Academic Decathlon open to the public. The Super Quiz includes questions from the subjects of art, economics, music, language and literature, science and social science. The team with the highest total score after the Super Quiz advances to the State Finals in March.
This year’s Super Quiz and Awards Ceremony will be held at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 4, at Oak Ridge High School. The event is free and open to the public; no tickets required. The quiz will be conducted by Mountain Democrat/Village Life publisher Richard Esposito and awards will be presented by Superintendent of Schools Ed Manansala, District Attorney Vern Pierson, El Dorado County Judges Warren Stracener and Dylan Sullivan, and county Chief Administrative Officer Don Ashton.
For more information regarding the Academic Decathlon call the EDCOE superintendent’s office at (530) 295-2217.