Sacramento-area schools train hard for academic decathlon

At Bella Vista High School, students who participate in the academic decathlon are asked to forgo winter sports – the better to limit distractions. Folsom High School takes the scholastic event so seriously that it has carved out an elective class for its team members.

The strategies pay off. Since 1989, Bella Vista has won the county title 22 out of 26 times, including the last three. The dominant Fair Oaks school has a friendly rivalry with Folsom, which wrested the championship trophy from Bella Vista three times, most recently in 2010 and 2011.

The two programs, along with upstart Pleasant Grove High School in Elk Grove, are preparing for the California Academic Decathlon, which begins March 21 in Sacramento. They qualified based on their performance in the Sacramento County Office of Education competition last month.

All teams in state and local competitions pursue the same study themes. This year, the principal focus is World War I, but competition includes peripheral topics such as genetics, social science and fundamental economics, both macro and micro. Students study battles, art and literature of the war era, including Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and Virginia Woolf.

For the state competition, teams will take seven multiple-choice tests, a half-hour each, on March 21. The next day, students deliver speeches, answer interview questions and then participate in the fast-paced “super quiz.”

As the contests close in, the preparation becomes more intense, said Bella Vista team member Jane Diamond, 18.

“The two weeks before the county competition, we met basically every day, several hours a day,” she said.

Coaches for Bella Vista and Folsom credit long hours and intense study, dedication, team-building, socialization, alumni support and consistent coaching for their successes. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that both campuses outperform averages in their districts and statewide in science, English and history.

“I think we’ve created a culture on our campus,” said Genevieve Aymeric, one of two longtime coaches at Bella Vista. “When it comes to academic decathlon, everyone on campus is proud of it. We have support from our staff and our students. We have many kids who apply because they want to be part of the group.”

Late last month, Bella Vista’s team members met over lunch to learn the logistics of the statewide competition and plans for participation. The event is expected to draw 65 teams and more than 560 students from around the state.

Bella Vista team member Max Schooley, 17, said students are eager to not let one another down. “I would see everybody else working hard. And I felt it was my duty to work as hard as well,” he said.

Diamond said later that she thrives on the teamwork. “I played soccer my whole life,” she said. After she was injured, the academic team was a good replacement.

“Being on (academic decathlon) has really given me that team experience: All those relationships, being dependent on one another and having the pressure and intensity of competition,” Diamond said.

Students said preparation isn’t just work. It involves competitive games, studying, transforming study materials into PowerPoint presentations – and reading, reading, reading. Community members, including retired educators, help the students prepare for the interview portion of the competition.

“We had the binders (of background material) we studied from,” said Edlyn Si, 17, a team member. “We had games like Jeopardy. Some people were really passionate about the game.”

Bella Vista selects the maximum possible nine team members in June, six months before many other schools do so. Prospective members are interviewed by the previous year’s team and the coaches. Joining the team means being willing to focus, Aymeric said.

“There is some give and take,” she said. “We ask that if they want to apply to the team that they are not involved in sports. They can be involved in fall and spring. But winter does not work. We’ve had kids in band over the years. And it’s hard to juggle.”

This team has students involved in tennis, and Schooley is involved with his synagogue, the coach said. Team member Stacee Smith is involved with her church and has a job.

At Folsom High School, coach Melinda Wilson said anybody who attends the class has a chance to make the team. But members are chosen through a combination of classroom performance, dedication and the results of a scrimmage in December.

“They’re a group of students who come together and want to do well,” Wilson said. “In 2007, I said I’d dye my hair blue if we ever won at the county. That was the first year we won. So I had blue hair for a few days.”

Consistency among coaches helps. Aymeric has been coaching for eight years and Mike Erickson, a retired teacher, has been coaching Bella Vista teams since 1989.

Once a student joins a team, it’s a long-term commitment, lasting well after high school. Erickson organizes reunions every summer and introduces the new members, Aymeric said.

Diamond said she felt the pressure in the county competition from her older siblings. She said her brother Charlie, a team member when Bella Vista won five years ago, warned her, “Jane, you had better not lose. This is Bella Vista’s legacy.”

Ken Scarberry, executive director of the California Academic Decathlon, said more than 2,000 spectators are expected to attend later this month. Other local competitors at the state event include Roseville High School from Placer County; Ponderosa High School from El Dorado County; and a combined squad from Davis High School and River City High School representing Yolo County.

The rivalry between Bella Vista and Folsom High School has remained lighthearted. And now Pleasant Grove has entered the mix. On Wednesday, teams from all three campuses will gather at Folsom High for pizza and friendly games of competition, said Folsom coach Wilson.

Bella Vista’s Aymeric agrees the rivalry is friendly.

“But it’s still a competition,” she said. “You want the best for all the kids because you want a positive experience. But it’s nice to win.”