One teacher and nine students huddle around a table in a Ringgold coffee shop discussing — India. Several months later, the group flies 3,500 miles to Anchorage, Alaska, to test their knowledge and skills against hundreds of students from around the country and the world.
Before they get a chance to see a reindeer or a moose, before they board a ship to watch whales, they must endure two full days of the most rigorous testing they’re ever likely to experience. Judges will grill them on India’s history, culture, literature, art, music, and economy. They’ll need to know political leaders and events dating back to the year 1300, be able to recognize and explain Indian classical music, including composers and instrumentation, recognize Indian art and know artists, genres, media and style.
Students will have read novels, poetry, essays and speeches and dissected them; they’ll know the historical context of everything they’ve studied. They will have quizzed themselves and each other for hundreds of hours. But that’s just the start. This is a Decathlon — there are ten categories.
There’s a demanding math competition. Students must give two speeches, one prepared in advance and one assigned on the spot. Then there’s the essay — 50 minutes to write a convincing paper on one of three topics; students produce thousands of words in preparation. Finally, there’s the interview to test a student’s interpersonal skills.
Welcome to the world of Academic Decathlon — not a sport for the faint of brain. Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School’s team won the state competition this year, earning a place at Nationals. LFO teams have won State six times in the 12 years the school has had the program.
LFO science teacher and Decathlon coach, Lisa Beck, says students spend 10-20 hours a week all year long studying. “Each year, the Decathlon has a theme,” says Beck. “This year it was India. Students learn to immerse themselves in every facet of a subject, to challenge themselves as they never have before.”
Academic Decathlon is unique in the world of intellectual competition — students don’t have to be among the top achievers in their school to participate. Each team is made up of three groups: A students, B students, and students with grade averages of C or below.
“It’s a great opportunity for kids who aren’t doing so well in class, for whatever reason,” says Beck. “Maybe they’re bored, not challenged enough. They get into Decathlon and experience the energy of working with others to master material, and they just take off.”
The power of working together on challenging material with a goal in view is something all the students talk about.
This was year three in Decathlon for Selma Kajtazovic, winner of a gold medal in Science and silver in Social Science at State. “Being around smart, driven people makes me want to challenge myself more,” she says. “It helps you grow intellectually and you develop meaningful friendships.”
Binal Patel, an LFO senior, participated for the first time this year. “It’s very satisfying to win something because you worked hard for it,” she says of the gold medal she earned in Speech at Nationals. “It’s motivating to be around such high-caliber people and teams.” She also won two gold and five silver medals at State.
LFO team leader Valerie King, who earned a gold medal in Music and silver in Science at State and is valedictorian of her school this year, says, “Getting to see my teammates compete at Nationals was really rewarding. We’re best friends, like family. I love seeing my teammates’ hard work pay off and getting to see them do something they’ve never done before.”
Trying something new was Traci Gray’s favorite thing about Decathlon. “It was my first chance to get out of my comfort zone and do something different,” she says.
John Christopher, who won bronze medals at State in Language and Literature, competed for his second year in 2016. “Decathlon has always been an original experience,” he says, “from the people I meet to the places I get to go. You get to do things you don’t typically do in school.”
Addison Smith says he’s experienced a new side of himself through Decathlon. “It’s opened me up to really compete. I’m an ambitious person, but until Decathlon I had no motive or challenge to express it.” Smith won gold medals at State in Music, Science, Economics and Social Science.
John Muina, who took first place in the Scholastic Division at State and won Gold Medalist Overall, agrees. “I do Decathlon because it compares you to everyone in the state. You see how you stack up. There’s no opportunity to do that with anything else, unless you take AP tests.”
“But what’s more important,” says Beck, whose husband, Ian, got LFO involved in the Decathlon program twelve years ago when he was teaching math at the school, “is that the kids learn what they’re capable of and how to work to make it happen. They gain confidence and independence, learn what it means to work as a team and as individuals. They learn that the only limits for them are ones they impose on themselves.”
This year’s Decathlon costs ran around $17,000, says Beck. “The study materials cost $2,000. The trip to Alaska was $15,000.” Beck says LFO principal Terri Vandiver and many of the teachers at the school have been overwhelmingly supportive in every way. The Decathlon team held a variety of fundraisers to finance their activities, but many individuals and groups helped, too, including the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which donated $1000.
Team members Alaina Joyner, who won a silver medal in Music at State, and Ben Harden were unable to join us for this interview but are pictured with their teammates.
To learn more about Academic Decathlon visit usad.org. Next year’s topic: World War II