Canyon del Oro High School's academic decathlon team is heading to the national finals in Honolulu, Hawaii.
It is the fifth time in nine years that the program has achieved the feat.
This year’s theme is World War I. The competitors will be questioned in seven written tests on art, economics, literature, math, music, science and social science. There are also three subjective events graded by judges: essay, interview and speech.
“I try and introduce lots of things to them,” said Chris Yetman, a math teacher at CDO and the team’s advisor. “I try to convince them that the things they are learning are interesting, and I hope that we can show them some success in this sort of competition...we have set up so they can put their knowledge to the test against other people...(if) they learn...hard work ultimately brings the success, they start working hard. And when they work hard amazing things happen.”
Team members put in up to four hours a day of study, in addition to their normal school work.
“I have to be really dedicated to something, and I have to really push myself in order to be motivated to get that scholarship or get those medals and to win, because ultimately that’s what I want to do,” said Rebecca Golsa, senior team member.
The trophies and banners that adorn the classroom can act as motivation for the team.
“I think knowing how successful it is...(we're) pushing our team even harder to continue that legacy,” Gosla said. “It’s not really intimidating at all because we have a sense that we can do it and that we are able to. I don’t think it has affected our growth as a team.”
To build the team, Yetman recruits some students before they even start high school. He looks at test scores and seeks out students who show a passion for learning and a strong work ethic.
Yetman recruited Maria Elena Pakulis when she was still in middle school.
“Well, I’m really competitive but I’ve never been the sporty type,” Pakulis said. “So, when I got my recruitment letter, my 8th grade year, that explained what academic decathlon was in a form related to Harry Potter, I was immediately drawn in and decided to sign up, and once I did I was hooked.”
Sometimes it doesn’t even take that much of Yetman’s effort.
“I’ve got some kids that have signed up and I haven’t even sent the letter down yet," he said. "They have heard about it and they want to be involved...our reputation and knowledge of what goes on here is a good recruiter.”
An academic decathlon team is made up of nine students in three categories determined by grade point average – three A students, called honors, three B students, called scholastics, and three C students, called varsities.
“The C students are kind of the most fun and the most difficult...the hardest to find because they have to be the students that have the gift of wanting to learn and of understanding, they have to have some sort of intellectual capability, but they are the ones that are most disaffected by school or have just never learned to care about getting the perfect grade,” Yetman said. “But what they all share, the A’s, B’s and C’s, is that love of learning, that willingness to explore horizons beyond the normal curriculum.”
Caleb Yetman, who is the adviser’s son, is a C student, or varsity.
“I know we are going to get a bad (reputation) for being lazy slackers and to an extent that’s true," Caleb said. "I don’t study as much as some of the honors kids, and as much as I need to. But there is sort of this ability that a lot of varsities have in mainly the subjunctives and the hanging out with other members of the team”
Pakulis said one other aspect of academic decathlon that affects her and her teammates is the individual nature of a team competition.
“That gets interesting, when as an individual you want to do the best that you can for yourself but then you have to remember that there is an entire team counting on you," she said. "So that’s where we come to each other and look to each other, and think 'we all want the same goal, we all want to go this together.'”
After the long hours of studying and the rigors of competition, students say that goal is in reach, especially now that they have won the state championship.
The national competition will be strong. CDO has been placed in Division One. Yetman said it will be an uphill climb, because a handful of Division One schools have better scores than CDO this year. But he said he remains upbeat.
“There was just this sense of ecstatic happiness and celebration of “the hard work has paid off and we are going to go to Nationals..." he said.