What started with the ancient Greeks as a contest of strength
and endurance has turned into one showcasing mental muscle.
What started with the ancient Greeks as a contest of strength and endurance has turned into one showcasing mental muscle.

Twelve students at San Benito High School are participating in an academic decathlon in which they study and compete in 10 different subjects from literature to economics to speech.

“Students who participate get a varied curriculum,” said Amy Brown, team coach and science teacher at SBHS. “They’re becoming better readers because they’re going beyond the regular curriculum. …The academic decathlon has the smartest students on campus in one class.”

The class is in its first year at SBHS and students are cramming for the California Academic Decathlon in March. Brown, who helped coach a decathlon team in Fresno before coming to SBHS, said she likes coaching the decathlon team because she, too, is always learning.

The class is open to students at any grade level but is made up mostly of sophomores this year because Brown recruited students from her freshman science classes last year.

Academic decathlon is taught during zero period – from 7:20 to 8:22 a.m. Tuesday through Friday – so the students are taking it on top of their regular classloads.

“It takes a special person to get up that early,” Brown said.

Each year, a theme is chosen to help narrow the amount that students have to study. This year, all 10 areas of competition will revolve around the theme is “Understanding the natural world.” For language and literature, students read Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd.” For art, students have looked at 18 selected works from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that focus on Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism and Asian art.

The team subject areas of the decathlon are math, economics, social science, music, art, language and literature, “super quiz,” essay, speech and interview. The last three are more subjective and are graded by judges while the first seven are objective – the competitors take multiple-choice written tests, except for the “super quiz,” which is held in front of an audience.

“I think we’re going to do pretty good,” said SBHS sophomore Sarah Worledge, who also competed in the academic decathlon at Orestimba High School in Newman. “We don’t have much experience but we’re doing well.”

SBHS sophomore Crystal Achilles signed up for academic decathlon because it sounded fun and gives her something extra to do, she said.

Participants receive four units of humanities credit at any University of California and the class counts as an elective for graduation at SBHS, Brown said.

“It’s a rigorous program. It looks good for them to have on their transcript,” she said.

Each decathlon team competes at a county level, hoping to make it to the California Academic Decathlon and, from there, to the United States Academic Decathlon.

Each school has three different teams – honor, scholastic and varsity. Each of these teams has three members, totaling nine students who go on to compete at the county, state and national levels. Students on the honor team usually have a GPA of 3.5 to 4.0, scholastic 3.0 to 3.5 and varsity 3.0 and under.

“(Having the three categories) is good because you still have strong team members,” Worledge said. “Even if you have the lower categories, they’re still intelligent. They just don’t do their work always.”

Brown said the class isn’t just geared toward honor students. Some are bright, she said, but haven’t excelled.

The academic decathlon class can be hard to grade, Brown said. Her grade structure is 30 percent study guides, 30 percent attendance, 30 percent participation and 10 percent practice quizzes. Students do a lot of work on their own outside of class, she said.

“Students get scared because they don’t do well on their practice quizzes, but I tell them that if they get 60 percent on the quizzes, they’re doing well,” Brown said.

SBHS senior Krissy McAlpine likes the small-class atmosphere and the wealth of knowledge academic decathlon offers.

“It’s interesting – it’s like 10 classes in one,” McAlpine said. “… We learn how to work as a team. Ms. Brown is more of a coach and a friend.”

Because SBHS’s is the only academic decathlon team in the county, it will automatically go to the California Academic Decathlon March 7-9 in Modesto. But Brown wants the students to have some practice competing before then. The team will participate in Fresno County’s competition Feb. 1 just to get experience. That practice competition will decide which nine SBHS students go to the state competition, Brown said.

The United States Academic Decathlon is April 23-26 in Erie, Pa.

At the California Academic Decathlon, each of the nine team members has the opportunity to score 1,000 points in each of the 10 categories. The best two scores from each group – honor, scholastic and varsity – are added to come up with an overall winner. Last year’s state winner was Moorpark High School from Ventura County with 48,603 points out of a possible 60,000.

Because this is SBHS’s first year in the competition, the team is automatically placed in Division III and competes only against Division III teams.

“It’s our first year and the Division I teams are very good,” Brown said. “… I told them to rest during the holiday break because when they come back it’s going to be one and a half months of cramming.”

At the state and national competitions there are several awards up for grabs for each team and team member from each of the three divisions.

Even if things don’t go well at the competitions, Brown said the students have grown and flourished just from participating in the class for the school year.

For more information, visit Brown’s Web page at www.sbhsd.k12.ca.us, the California Academic Decathlon Web page t www.acadec.org or the United States Academic Decathlon at www.usad.org.

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A staff member wrote, edited or posted this article, which may include information provided by one or more third parties.


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