It takes a community: Preparing for Sunday’s Academic Decathlon

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Just as much as the Rhode Island Academic Decathlon promotes scholarly competition every year, it also brings the community together to put on a great event for Rhode Island’s high school students.

This Sunday, students from 14 different high schools will compete for the chance to represent Rhode Island in the National Academic Decathlon.

Academic Decathlon is a series of 10 scholastic events testing students on their intellectual skills in art, economics, essay, interview, language and literature, math, music, science, social science and speech, holding a “Super Quiz” at the end.

Dr. Robert Peterson established the national organization in 1983. He invited high schools from across the country to attend a decathlon in California and Hendricken sent out a team that year.

Coming home with some medals, the Beacon wrote an article about Hendricken’s success and that spawned the creation of Rhode Island’s own academic decathlon division.

John Howell, the chair for the Rhode Island Academic Decathlon, said, “This program has really grown since the beginning, from just a few students winning medals to sending a team to nationals every year. It takes a community to make this all work.”

Between hosting the event, getting the medals and shirts, as well as more than 120 volunteers stepping up to be judges and proctors, there are a lot of community components to making sure the students have a great competition day.

Edna Matteson, who runs CCRI facilities, where the event is held every year, said, “This is such a worthwhile program. It is a learning activity for everyone involved whether you’re a judge, a proctor or just a spectator. It’s a dynamic program and we try to make it all work out.”

Just as it takes a community to put the event on, it also takes a community to make a successful team.

Teams are required to have students of varying grade point averages, everything from an A to a C.

Howell said that by doing so students of all capabilities can learn from one another and get the chance to compete. Often times those students in the B or C range can act as the underdog of the team.

“You could have a C student who really buckles down because he’s invested in the team. That student can really carry the team over the finish line,” Howell said.

Steve Belanger, decathlon coach at Vets High School, said that the differences in grades doesn’t factor in as much as you would think and his team is consistently trying to help one another.

He said, “We try and not create a separatist dynamic, having honors students only practice with honors, because that creates a feeling of superiority. Everybody has to help everyone prepare. We want to foster camaraderie no matter what level everyone is at.”

So close to competition, Belanger’s team has been practicing non-stop, holding practices every day they can with as many students as possible. He said the veterans, including the 12 seniors on the team, have really stepped up to help the “newbies” prepare.

Belanger said, “It’s an exciting, slash, nerve-wracking, slash, oh boy sort of time so close to the competition. Everyone is excited, especially the freshmen, they are ready to try out their stuff.”

Some high school graduates are even coming back to help the team get ready. They go to practices and are even volunteering their time to be judges and proctors for the competition.

The graduates talk to students about their past experiences in Academic Decathlon, what about their speeches the judges liked, essays that won medals and in general just what to expect on competition day.

Steven Belanger said, “There aren’t too many things in school that rewards intellectual ability. We see a lot of that type of support going to sports teams, but academics want that competition and pressure, to be able to think on their feet just as much.”

For Sister Carol Anne Murray’s Hendricken team, comprised of all juniors and first-time decathletes, all the students are nervous about what to expect. Having never been in a competition before, Murray said they are all “anxious but exuberant.”

This is Murray’s first time with having a team without any seniors, although the team has done well on the practice tests.

“I’ve never had a team before that gelled so well and pushed each other to succeed so much,” Murray said.

She said that although she meets with the team only twice a week, the students on her team often meet without her and stay hours after she ends the regular practice.

“These students are not out for individual medals, they just want to do well as a team and are really supportive of one another,” she said.

Even just putting together the T-shirts was a community effort.

Jann Rogers-Gartner, the graphic design teacher at the Warwick Career and Technical Center, assigned her entire class to put together submissions for the T-shirt design; the theme was energy and innovation.

Two students, Allyson Kaye and Hannah Simas had the winning graphics.

Simas, who designed a light bulb made out of leaves, said, “Whenever I think of energy, I think about light bulbs and plants; they seem sort of opposite, but I wanted to find a way to bring them together.”

Kaye’s design, which will be on the back of the T-shirt and features various gears interlocked with every symbol inside of them, came from Kaye’s metaphorical representation of innovation, “getting the gears going.”

Although the two students won, their entire class had a small part in their final products.

The class holds regular critiques talking about everyone’s designs before going back to the drawing board.

Kaye said, “We all see things one way, but by having a bunch of different points and perspectives you get to see more ways you could take the artwork. It really helps when you’re stuck on an idea and need a new direction to take.”

“Everyone is biased about their own work,” Simas said. “You work hard and you want to feel proud, but when you get that criticism, it hurts but it’s actually really helpful. You can see where to improve.”

Both girls said they were excited their designs would be used for the T-shirts because it means their artwork is going to be on display for everyone to see.

Kaye’s mother, Sharon Kaye, works for Coast to Coast Promotional Products, the company printing the shirts for the competition.

Howell said, “Here in Rhode Island people might think we are using the inside track, but it really all just happened that way. Her design was clearly the right choice.”

The Academic Decathlon is this Sunday, March 15 at CCRI’s Knight Campus in Warwick. The event is open to the public. The winning school of the competition will continue on to the national decathlon held in Garden Grove, Calif., on April 16 to 18. The Rhode Island Academic Decathlon is also still looking for judges. If you are interested in becoming a judge, and/or a proctor, for the event, register at www.riadregistration.org/decathlon/volunteers.pl.

For more information, contact Tim Forsberg at timf@rhodybeat.com or call 732-3100.

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