Placer County cancels academic decathlon competition

A student answers a question during an area-wide academic decathlon at Inderkum High School in 2011.
A student answers a question during an area-wide academic decathlon at Inderkum High School in 2011. Bee file

Roseville High School senior Robbie Short and his eight teammates have spent hundreds of hours this year studying and meeting weekly in hopes of winning their third straight Placer County Academic Decathlon in February.

They may not have the chance.

Last week, the Placer County Office of Education told coaches it had canceled the annual competition because of a lack of interest. Placer County schools chief Gayle Garbolino-Mojica said only Roseville High School and Western Sierra Collegiate Academy had signed up by the Dec. 5 deadline. The county office requires four teams to hold a competition, she said.

Roseville High School Coach Bobby Ritter told his team about the cancellation last Wednesday.

“They were devastated,” he said. The team has been studying for the competition since the middle of May, reading over 1,000 pages of dense textbook materials and meeting in the summer and every Wednesday during the school year.

An academic decathlon team consists of nine members, although some schools field teams with more than 20 members, including alternates.

The teams are made up of equal numbers of students with high, middle and low grade-point averages. Students compete as a team and individually, taking tests, writing an essay, giving speeches and being interviewed. The competition usually ends with a team event called the “super quiz.” The winning county team moves on to the state competition, though some high-scoring teams that do not win also receive an invitation.

“You spend a lot of time studying and practicing with the team and to find out so late in the year ... it kind of sucks,” said Short, 17. “It was very disappointing to see the county didn’t value us.”

Short has been the captain of the Roseville High team for two years. He won the gold medal in arts, silver in economics and bronze in math in the honors division at the state meet last year. The Roseville team has won the Placer County Academic Decathlon for two years running after powerhouse Granite Bay ended its program because the school lacked a coach.

Garbolino-Mojica said the dwindling number of teams stems from a lack of student interest in the academic decathlon, as well as budget cuts that left some schools without stipends to pay coaches. The county superintendent said PCOE staff “tried to drum up participants” and contacted district superintendents for help.

“We just got feedback that they weren’t interested,” she said, noting that some high school officials called the event an “antiquated program.” School officials reported that students are moving toward competitions that have to do with “robotics or something to do with technology,” she said.

The Placer County event, which includes the competition and an awards banquet, requires a great deal of staff time, recruitment of volunteers and $15,000 to put on, Garbolino-Mojica said.

The Sacramento County Office of Education spends about $20,000 to $30,000 annually on its event, which covers practice materials for the teams, facility rental, janitors and food for volunteers, according to Ken Irish, Sacramento County Academic Decathlon coordinator. He said SCOE staff are responsible for submitting all the paperwork to the state and preparing for the competition. “It takes a fair amount of staff time,” he said.

One possibility is for a neighboring county to include the Placer teams in its competition. If that doesn’t happen, Ritter plans to put on the event himself at Roseville High School. He hopes he can gather enough volunteers for a scaled-back program on Feb. 7. He isn’t sure what it would cost or how he would get the money.

“I know this one way or another, you guys are going to get a test and get a chance to get a berth to a state meet,” Ritter said he told his team Wednesday. “I don’t know what that means – to go to another county, do it online or do it ourselves.”

Rocklin High’s Michael Knight, who was a competitor in high school and has coached at Roseville and Rocklin since 2002, agreed: “The academic decathlon has not received as much support in the past few years as it has previously.”

Knight said his team planned to compete at the Placer County event in February, but there was a mix-up in the delivery of its paperwork. He said he inquired about the possibility of fielding two teams, which would have filled out the third and fourth spaces necessary to have a competition.

Despite the paperwork problem, Knight said he “emailed the director at the PCOE several times indicating our intent to compete. So, there was no doubt about it.”

Garbolino-Mojica said the county office heard from Rocklin’s team but did not receive its paperwork by the official deadline and canceled the event.

Ken Scarberry, California Academic Decathlon coordinator, acknowledges that the competition has had problems “nationally because of economics,” but said the state program continues to grow, adding about 11 new schools this year. He expects about 4,500 California students from 500 schools to participate in county academic decathlons on Feb. 7. About 65 teams will be invited to the state championship at Inderkum High School in Sacramento in March.

Sacramento County has 28 teams this year, up from 27 last year and 22 the year before that, Irish said. Seven years ago, the county had 15 teams.

“I haven’t heard my coaches say that there is lack of interest,” Irish said.

A lack of interested coaches is more likely the problem than a lack of student interest, said some academic decathlon leaders.

“They are having problems finding the right coach,” Scarberry said. “There are teachers out here willing to coach, it’s just a matter of finding them and working with them.”

Scarberry took umbrage at critics who call the program antiquated.

“I heard someone say ‘outdated’ and I was blown back by that,” Scarberry said. “We are the first state in the nation to use automated response systems.”

The clickers, used by students during the test, were introduced last year. “This is one example of us definitely not being outdated,” he said.

Irish said that the model is due for an update. But he believes that means moving from memorization to critical thinking rather than focusing on technology changes.

“We’ve used the same model for many years and we’ve talked about different ideas to change it,” he said.

Scarberry said the success of a county program is “based on how the county views a program, who is overseeing the program and whether or not they are giving it any focus.” He usually speaks to county coordinators throughout the year, but said he has had little communication from Placer County.

“It doesn’t necessarily surprise me that this might happen,” he said.

Call The Bee’s Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert.

What is the academic decathlon?

Academic decathlon teams consist of three honors students, with a 3.75 or higher grade-point average; three scholastic students, with a 3.0 to 3.75 GPA; and three varsity students, with a 2.99 or lower GPA. Contestants may compete in a higher division than their own grade-point average category, but not in a lower division.

Each team takes a 30-minute multiple choice test in the subjects of economics, language and literature, music, science, art, mathematics and social science. Each team member writes an essay, gives a four-minute prepared speech and a two-minute improvised speech and is interviewed by the judges. The competition usually ends with a team event called the “super quiz.”

Individual and team awards are presented at an awards banquet. The overall county winner moves on to the state competition.

This year’s theme is “New Alternatives in Energy: Ingenuity and Innovation.”

Sources: United States Academic Decathlon and Sacramento County Office of Education