Decathlon for Mental Gymnasts

IN high school, athletes get cheered; intellectuals often get called nerds. How to give academic students the camaraderie and prestige that go with being on a winning team has perplexed educators for some time. The United States Academic Decathlon provides a partial answer. This rigorous contest, now in its eighth year as a national event, tests the mental prowess of 11th- and 12th-graders, framing it in sports terms - decathlon, coaches, varsity, championship teams, regional finals.

The national finals for the academic decathlon will be held April 28 and 29 at the Marriott Hotel in Providence, R.I. For the prime event, the Superquiz (this year's topic is the American presidency), siblings, parents, teachers, classmates, and the public will root for their team from the bleachers at the Community College of the University of Rhode Island. Others can watch their PBS stations, which will cover the competition.

To get to this point, teams have often gone through as many as three competitions, at city, state, and regional levels. The decathlon tests their mettle in the areas of mathematics, science, social science, economics, language and literature, fine arts, and essays. The students also give an impromptu and a prepared speech.

``You're exposed to a lot more in-depth studying on your own on the team than you would do for a report,'' says Hoon Lee, who's on the Wayland, Mass., High School team, winner of this year's Massachusetts Academic Decathlon. ``For the fine arts part, you have to learn that a certain artist did a certain work and what he was known for.''

``It's a very major change for American education,'' says Ann Joynt, executive director of the United States Academic Decathlon, in Cerritos, Calif. ``We think we've changed the image of learning and accomplishment.''

The decathlon is not just for A students; there are three levels: Honor, Scholastic, and Varsity. Varsity is for C students. ``We don't want to be an elitist thing,'' says Ms. Joynt. ``We want to be a program for all students.'' There are three students in each category on teams from the same school.

Mike Rumrill, a visual arts teacher, is Wayland's coach. He says the whole process started last June, when he gave out study guides and books for students to read over summer vacation. He chose the team in early September. Close to competitions, practice sessions were held as often as four times a week.

``One of the reasons I like it is, they get to be a pretty close group,'' Mr. Rumrill says.

Sharon Bachman, a junior on the Wayland team, also plays sports and says there are similarities: ``It's really fun to have everybody care about how everyone else is doing, and become aware of the progress of the team. And the feel on the last day of the competition is as fierce as a field hockey or lacrosse game.''

The first local competition was started 21 years ago by the Orange County, Calif., superintendent of schools, Robert Peterson. Now 40 states participate, with Texas and California being the heavy hitters. This year there are also teams from Northern Ireland and the American International School in Rio de Janeiro.

``There's a lot of interest in the decathlon in other countries, so we usually invite them to come take a look, and bring sponsors with the idea that they will initiate programs in their own countries,'' says Joynt. ``We'd like to become international in the next three to four years.''

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