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Academic Decathlon – much more than an academic competition

December 20, 2012

Every year, nine students from Coppell High School compete in a rigorous competition that truly stretches their academic abilities- the Academic Decathlon. The very term Decathlon conjures up images of all-round athletes, competing for honors in 10 different events. The Academic Decathlon (AcDec) is not very different. Instead of athletic events, the participants must compete in ten different academic events- art, economics, language and literature, math, music, science, social science, essay, interview, speech, and the Super Quiz event. In order to succeed, they require depth of knowledge in the subject matter, perseverance and dedication, endurance, and most important, a desire to learn and challenge themselves.

AcDec as an academic competition is unique, in that it is designed to include students from all achievement levels. Each 9-member AcDec team is divided into 3 divisions based on students’ grades: Honors (A’s), Scholastic (B’s) and Varsity (C’s). Each team member will compete in all 10 events against other students in his or her division. Team scores are calculated using the top two overall individual scores from each team in all three divisions. In order to advance to Nationals, the team has to make it through the regional and state competitions first.

The students study one theme in depth and all ten events are based on this theme. The themes are as varied as Russia (this year) to the Civil War in 2008 and The Great Depression in 2011. As Donnette Alexander, who has coached AcDec at CHS for 14 years, puts it “you have a new topic each year, so you never study the same thing twice. You study the topic in the ten different categories. In other academic competitions, you might compete in one area; this competition is designed for the kid who wants the true challenge of competing in all ten. Colleges love it because any kid who has done the Decathlon has truly been stretched. They are truly the total package academically.”

Recruitment for AcDec begins in spring. “It is so hard to get the word out to explain how wonderful the program is”, says Alexander. Current AcDec coach Tim Dixon adds, “The students are overburdened with information, every club wants you to join, it’s really a marketing battle. A lot of kids hear AcDec and think ‘that’s not for me, I’m not smart’. They join the team and they are around kids who are studious, and all of a sudden, they see success.”

At CHS, AcDec is an AP class, and earns a student the same credit as an advanced level IB or AP class. “The school has recognized the merit of the class. Getting the AP credit for the class has made a big difference,” says Ms. Alexander. “It is such a wonderful program for all students- for the gifted and talented, for the student who has not reached his full potential yet, and for the kids who are in the top 10, or national merit scholars.”

Preparing for a competition of this nature naturally involves a substantial time commitment. State championships take place in February and the new topic for the next year is released in March. The students start preparing soon after. “We can start studying art history or music theory or speech skills even when we are not in competitive season”, says Dixon. By May they get the theme-specific material for study, and the preparation continues over summer. Once the school year starts, the Decathletes meet every day during 4th period, plus they have to attend one mandatory meeting after school per week.

While there are no limitations on the number of students who may participate in preparing for the competition, a smaller class size makes it easier to teach students who are at so many different levels academically. Says Dixon, “We had 27 kids in the program last year, and, no doubt, it is difficult to teach that many kids, at different levels, on 10 different subjects; this year we have 14 in the program and it is more manageable.”

Of these students, 9 will make the competitive team (tryouts take place in December). These 9 students have to attend after school sessions 3-5 times a week, and at least 7 Saturday practices. The students that do not make the cut provide a support net for the competitive team, helping out with research and problem solving.

The time spent together preparing for the competition is demanding, but with it comes a sense of belonging and community within the team. “AcDec teaches you how to study well and test well. But you’ve also been in a close knit community where you made friends. I love the teamwork and friendship these kids build- they stay in touch years later, they go to each other’s weddings. We’ve had kids who met in AcDec and got married. We’ve had shy kids that begin to blossom, they become outgoing and find they can be successful. AcDec becomes a home for a lot of kids who didn’t have a home”, says Alexander.

The challenges and demands on the Decathlete are great, but the rewards can be even greater. Colleges understand the level of dedication and perseverance a Decathlete requires. “It looks wonderful on college applications because it is a national competitive program and colleges are familiar with the rigor of it and how challenging it is, and how it goes far beyond the usual high school curriculum”, says Ms. Alexander.

Tim Dixon adds, “If a student with Bs wins a state competition, he or she probably will get a call from top notch college. There are C kids who won State that have been to Harvard. Two of our AcDec kids are at University of Columbia- one of them was a B kid, and one of them was valedictorian, so that can show you the range of what can happen.”

To summarize, yes, AcDec is an academic competition. But it is so much more. It teaches perseverance, and the value of good old-fashioned hard work. It builds friendships that go far beyond the high school years. It challenges students to push themselves beyond their own expectations. And most important of all, it motivates students at all levels, to excel beyond their current achievement level.

The CHS Academic Decathlon team placed 6th in state in 2010-2011. They also were 6th in state in 2005-2006. (The team won 9 individual medals at state that year, and one of the students received a $1,000 college scholarship).

We wish the team all the luck for this upcoming season.

To read more on the Academic Decathlon, visit Texas Academic Decathlon and US Academic Decathlon

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