Stanislaus County academic decathletes face off today

naustin@modbee.comJanuary 31, 2014 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textNan Austin
    Title: Education reporter
    Coverage areas: K-12 education, Yosemite Community College District
    Bio: Nan Austin has been a copy editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 24 years. She has an economics degree from CSU Stanislaus and previously worked at the Merced Sun-Star and Turlock Journal.
    Recent stories written by Nan
    On Twitter: @nanaustin
    E-mail: naustin@modbee.com
  • AT A GLANCE

    WHAT: The Stanislaus County Academic Decathlon Super Quiz and Awards Presentation

    WHEN: 1:30 to 5 p.m. today

    WHERE: Gregori High School gymnasium, 3701 Pirrone Road

    INFO: The 34th annual Academic Decathlon put on by the Stanislaus County Office of Education is free for spectators. Each high school team includes nine competitors, three each from three grade-point averages. The decathlon includes tests, speeches and interviews, this year revolving around the theme of World War I.

Weathering bleary-eyed study sessions, weekend team practices and untold hours of reading, Stanislaus County’s Academic Decathletes face off for the Super Quiz today, testing their knowledge of the World War I era.

The defending champs are from Oakdale High, defending a 13-year winning streak. “That’s the motivation that really propels us forward, to keep the tradition alive,” said Oakdale senior Alex Keyser.

“It’s a tradition you’ve become a part of,” chimed in teammate Caitlin Golding, a sophomore. Freshman Taryn Lane will be following in the footsteps of an older sister she watched compete for four years.

But while there’s plenty of confidence, senior Dylan Hawksworth-Lutzow said they know they’re the team to beat. “If we were cocky and we lost, it’d be really bad. If we win, at least we weren’t jerks about it.”

Friday, a pumped class of 30 Oakdale teens reviewed quiz questions, finished each other’s sentences and reveled in the camaraderie only all-out effort can build. Nine will compete today. The rest the class studies as alternates this year, potential competitors next year.

“There’s no secret recipe. We do a lot of studying. This becomes your life for several months,” said senior Adam Jensen, admitting to a 15-hour studying binge on Thursday. Others had worked on other classwork, but a comment about reading until 3 a.m. got sympathetic high fives.

“We’re like a family at this point. We’ve got the crazy uncle going on, the little sisters,” Keyser said as his teammates burst out laughing.

That night the nine-member competing team would be dressed out in suits, pant suits and dresses for the interviews and speeches. Oakdale High art teacher Nancy Kern would be among the volunteer judges, though not evaluating anyone from Oakdale.

“We can’t know who they are or their school,” Kern said. She and other volunteers would meet with six to eight students individually, asking each the same questions. Her favorite: “Who was the most influential person in your life?” It lets the students talk about their lives, their hopes, their values, while she evaluates them on a series of skills.

First tip: Dress for success. “That’s important. It’s basically an interview for a job,” Kern said. Second tip: Answer the question. Judges check how well interviewees stay on topic, as well as being articulate and keeping cool under pressure.

Today, at the Super Quiz, Oakdale will be easy to spot in lucky red mock turtlenecks, their winning uniform for the past 13 years. Behind the scenes, team coach Linda Dodge will be sweating every answer with them. Win or lose, she said, “as long as they’re working their hardest, they know they’ve done the best they can do – and they do work hard.”

Her job in the seventh-period class is the easiest, she said. “It’s the students that motivate each other. I’m more a facilitator and scheduler and paperwork filler-outer,” Dodge said. “They pretty much run the show.”

What motivates her? “Getting to work with these kids. Ending my day with kids that love to learn,” she said.

Oakdale’s team has the advantage of being a yearlong class. Denair High, Ceres High and Patterson High also have classes. Other Academic Decathlon teams are clubs, and the difference is huge, said former decathlete turned coach Tyler Ray.

“When it’s only a club, they definitely don’t get the amount of time you need,” Ray said.

At Ceres High, he said, a music teacher comes to the class to teach the music appreciation section – this year including ragtime, jazz, opera and vaudeville. An English teacher helps students grasp the finer points of the literature, this year “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway.

This year’s science revolves around genetics, which had major discoveries around the WWI era. The economics sections study the Railroad Administration, peace treaties and countries’ war debt.

“It makes kids better test takers. It directly benefits them. They learn to study and think faster,” Ray said.

Barbara Little, Stanislaus County Office of Education student events coordinator, said students go head-to-head against others in the same grade-point range, broadening participation. Schools send nine members – three students each in three grade-point categories – as a core team, with any number of alternates.

This year’s winner will represent Stanislaus County at the California Academic Decathlon State Finals, March 20-23, in Sacramento. Oakdale High placed 11th at state last year, but they like their chances this year if they win today.

“This year we have a team with that potential,” Jensen said. The difference is a strong “varsity” section, the three team-members with lower grades. “It’s not the top students – that’s the misconception. It’s that we have a nice, well-rounded team.”

Stanislaus high schools participating this year: Central Catholic High in Modesto; Ceres High; Denair High; Davis, Enochs, Modesto, Gregori and Johansen high schools in Modesto; Keyes Charter; Patterson High; Valley Charter High School; and Oakdale High. Denair High was the small-school winner last year.

The Stanislaus County event is co-sponsored by the Stanislaus County Office of Education, Gallo Foundation and Mocse Credit Union.

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