Union Academic Decathlon team claims regional championship, advances to State

On March 2nd, Union High School will send a team to Fort Dodge, where they will compete for a state championship. This is no ordinary team and these students are no ordinary competitors. For the competition in which they engage is that of academic strength, one that will test their knowledge (and endurance) over ten different academic disciplines. These are the students who will represent Union High School at the Iowa Academic Decathlon state competition.

Contrary to what some might think, Academic Decathlon is not reserved for students whose grade point averages hover at or near 4.0. What makes the Academic Decathlon unique is that each team consists of students competing in three separate divisions. The Honors Division is reserved for students whose cumulative GPA is 3.75 or higher. Students with a GPA in the 3.0-3.74 range compete in the Scholastic division. The Varsity division is reserved for students carrying a GPA below 3.0. This structure makes the contributions of each team member equally important to the overall success of the team.

When the Knights go to State next month, they will arrive as the most highly decorated team in school’s Academic Decathlon history. In January, the team won a regional competition for the first time ever, posting the second highest score in the state of schools their size. The overall depth and strength of the team was evidenced by an amazing medal haul, as the Union students took home 18 gold, 19 silver and 20 bronze awards from the regional competition.

In the state of Iowa, Academic Decathlon dates back to 1986 when it was first introduced by Denison High School. As the word Decathlon implies, there are ten “events” (academic disciplines), in which each student will be tested. Each of these subject areas are connected to an over-arching theme. The theme for the 2017-18 school year is Africa.

Union High School’s success at Academic Decathlon competitions did not happen overnight. When English instructor Kerrie Michael joined the Union High School staff in 2012, the school did not have an Academic Decathlon team. Approaching administrators to express her interest in forming one, the response she got was surprising. Rather than treat it as an extracurricular activity, the model most high schools in the state use, Michael was given clearance to offer it as an elective class.

Her students are the first to admit this arrangement offers them a significant advantage. Rather than competing for time before and after school with other athletic and fine arts activities, dedicated class time and a budget for course materials allows students more time to learn the material on which they will be tested. The commitment to the program by the students, staff and administration at Union has been validated by steadily improving scores and an elevated place in the team standings.

But dedicated class time isn’t the only reason why the team continues to prosper. The dozen students in Kerrie Michael’s Academic Decathlon class have managed to turn the grind of studying a broad topic (Africa) across ten different subject areas into something unexpected: FUN. Rather than succumbing to the hundreds of pages of course materials collected in the “Binder of Doom,” they have devised clever ways to make their studies more enjoyable.

While the methods they employ may seem almost “nerd-like” to outsiders, creating memes, embellishing PowerPoint presentations and coining funky phrases by using a play on words offer a certain entertainment value. More importantly, these strategies serve a valuable educational purpose, one they hope is “Ghana lead to a high score at the state competition.”

The task of managing a class that spans grades 9-12 and covers ten subject areas is a daunting one. Michael‘s response to this complex challenge gets the students involved and responsible for their own learning. At some point during the course, each student becomes the teacher of the class, presenting a portion of course materials to all of their classmates. Taking on the role of instructor requires students to have a greater understanding of the material. Michael knows from experience that some of the highest competition scores achieved by her students will come in the subjects they’ve presented to their classmates.

Because the course is an elective credit, students at Union High School can opt to take it multiple times. It might be surprising to learn that a number of students choose to do just that. Several of the students who competed at the state competition for Union last year are back for another run in 2018. For some, this is their third year in the program. Why do they keep coming back? There are a combination of reasons.

Because of the unique composition of the class, plus the fact that it extends over multiple trimesters, students who stick with Academic Decathlon are treated to an almost family-like experience. And students are quick to credit their teacher for creating the conditions that allow them to effectively work together, support each other and have fun at the same time.

Union High School’s success in the Academic Decathlon can also be traced back to a group of senior leaders who have been an integral part of the school’s growing success over the past few years. They have high hopes, and equally high expectations, for how they will perform at the state competition. Bringing home a trophy would be nice. Winning the State competition and earning a trip to Nationals in Frisco, Texas would be even nicer.

Regardless the results at the state competition next month, it is clear the rigors of Academic Decathlon have taught each member of the Union High School team how to be better students, teammates and friends, as well as represent their school in the best way possible. To do all of that while managing to have some fun along the way is quite an accomplishment, indeed.