On many mornings, Bill Davis arrives at Bald Knob High School before 7 a.m. By that time, he is settled in and ready for the Quiz Bowl sunrise practice. Eight students roll in and gear up for a flash round of questions that will range from naming characters in a Shakespeare play to defining weather terms to listing medieval monarchs.
These practice sessions, which occur before and after school as well as on lunch breaks and weekends, are a test of mental endurance.
Both teachers and students sacrifice personal time to participate in a battle of wits that could propel a school, regardless of its size, from a local competition to a national one.
"These kids learn so much from Quiz Bowl," Mr. Davis, a math teacher at Bald Knob (Ark.) High School and Quiz Bowl sponsor, says. "They learn sportsmanship, discipline, social skills, knowledge and how to handle stress. This kind of activity is creating the leaders of tomorrow."
Academic competitions like Quiz Bowl, Odyssey for the Mind, and the United States Academic Decathlon provide an opportunity for students to compete and excel on a mental level much the way they do on a physical one in sports. Matches also allow students to travel the state, and if they are smart and quick on the buzzer, the nation. This outlet is sometimes the only extracurricular activity for students who do not participate in athletics, cheerleading, band, or choir.
Yet state funding and a corporate sponsorship for the program were lost in 1995. Only the dedication of committed teachers has kept Quiz Bowl going in the state.
"The Department of Education went through restructuring and priorities changed," explains Brenda Matthews, who helped draft the State Recognition Program and is the assistant to the director of legislative services. "Priorities changed. There are more issues in education that are important today. When it comes down to tight money, you have to buy paper and pencils and not always the goodies like encouragement."
Teachers and students feel strongly that the program, far from being an academic frill, provides valuable academic training. "There should definitely be money for Quiz Bowl," says Jerrod Piker, a senior at Bald Knob High School who wants to study music at the University of Arkansas. "I believe that it stimulates participants to think. I know it has helped me to think a lot better."
In Arkansas, 243 schools and nearly 10,000 students compete in Quiz Bowl on high school, junior high, and elementary school levels. More students volunteer to keep score, sell concessions, and set up the stage when schools host a tournament.
"It's a great opportunity to learn about life," says Adam Chestnut, a senior. "It offers so much to me both as a student and as a person. I couldn't imagine school without it."
For the past two years, a corps of teachers, coaches, and representatives of educational-service cooperatives has worked to ensure that he wouldn't have to. They run the event on a shoestring, charging a $35 fee to participating public and private schools and absorbing costs like gas and food on trips to competition and meetings themselves.
"Many of us felt kids should have the opportunity to participate in something that isn't just a state event but a national one," says Linda Miller, the coach at Benton High School, who has taken several teams to national competitions. "We have kept it going after politics changed and the funding went."
The competition, which continues to grow as more schools participate, was started in Arkansas in 1983 as the idea of then-Gov. Bill Clinton. He called a special legislative session to examine education, and the State Recognition Program - which celebrated academic excellence with awards administered by the Department of Education - was created.
Quiz Bowl, known also as the Governor's Academic Competition, began two years later under the program. Winners attended a banquet and received scholarships. Teams got money for expenses at national competitions.
The high school competition needs $26,000 - aside from the nearly $9,000 it currently gets from membership fees - to keep it going. Davis, who dedicates at least 20 free hours a week to Quiz Bowl, has contacted politicians, banks, and corporations to ask for help. A bank in Fort Smith has offered $5,000 but only if it can be matched first. Every week Davis tries to land a meeting with Gov. Mike Huckabee.
"If a school has a basketball team, it needs a Quiz Bowl team," Davis says. "If this were sports, it would be a different ballgame."
For all the disappointments, the teachers persevere the students, who they say need Quiz Bowl as an outlet. "It upsets me that we have no money," Ms. Miller says passionately. "There are a lot of kids who have lots of knowledge and may not be the top of the line students because they are shy. When they get behind that buzzer, they bloom into fountains of information."