Academic decathlon is a team sport

Bella Vista High School’s academic decathlon team studies for the 2014 state competition.
Bella Vista High School’s academic decathlon team studies for the 2014 state competition. Sacramento Bee file

When my daughter tried out for Granite Bay High School’s academic decathlon team at the end of her freshman year, several students were vying for only a couple of slots. She didn’t make the team.

She had learned about Acadec from friends at the now-defunct Magic Circle Theater in Roseville, and though not especially studious, she thought that Acadec would be a good fit. It’s hard for some kids to find their place in a high school of 1,700 students; many don’t fit the athlete, band or student government mold.

Her GPA qualified her for the varsity team, which is to say she had a “C” average according to a calculation that I never did understand. She was, in my opinion, a classic case of a student who was extremely bright but didn’t always live up to her potential, a label that I wore throughout my own school career.

I was tremendously proud when my daughter tried out for Acadec again at the end of her sophomore year and made it. The team – nine kids, three in each GPA category – spent the next nine months studying together, both in school and outside, forming life-long bonds while studying 10 diverse subjects with one common theme.

But this isn’t a story about a mother’s pride. It’s a story about the academic decathlon teams that have provided a home for many other kids during high school. And it’s a story about what Acadec can do for students as they prepare for college and beyond.

Yes, my daughter learned about the Civil War and about Mesoamerica. But more than that, through intensive work with peers, encouragement from coach Anthony Davis and her newfound motivation, she learned how to study. She learned how to be part of a team. She shared her strengths – speech writing, public speaking and art – with her peers, and they shared their strengths in science, math and economics. From the “C’ students to the school’s valedictorian, there was no distinction on the team. All helped one another to achieve success, and those successes translated to the students’ regular course work as well.

The team encouraged my daughter to achieve goals beyond what she had imagined. She may not have been surprised – but her parents certainly were – when she earned the distinction of Placer County’s Varsity Decathlete of the Year both years that she participated. Her team won the county division, and every member earned at least one medal at the California state competition, an honor that still thrills these students half a decade later.

Today my daughter is a seventh-grade social studies teacher with a master’s degree in education from UC Davis. Is it a stretch to attribute her success and love of learning to coach Davis and her peers from Acadec? I don’t think so.

Do sports build character? Does band? Of course.

But because the Acadec team serves only nine students each year rather than 50-plus, schools don’t want to spend money on coach stipends, stipends that don’t begin to cover the hundreds of hours that coaches spend teaching and prepping their teams for competition.

Kudos to the Sacramento County Office of Education for allowing Roseville High School and Western Collegiate Academy to compete alongside Sacramento teams in February. And shame on the Placer County Office of Education for canceling its competition – for not valuing this important option for our students, helping them find their place in high school and giving them the opportunity and honor of medaling in the Academic Decathlon competition.

Eileen Wilson is a library technician at a school in Granite Bay who has been involved in education for nearly 16 years.