March 7, 2005
Their lives have consisted of astronomy, history and mathematics.
At lunchtime, their noses are in books.
On the way home from school, they review equations in their heads. Dinner time is study time. Sleep simply allows their brains to process information.
Friends and family say the scholars have been so preoccupied and busy that Sunday — the day after the state Academic Decathlon ends — will seem like a reunion. Unless, of course, the scholars excel this weekend and advance to the national competition April 13-16 in Chicago.
The Academic Decathlon is the World Series of scholarship. Teams of A-average, Baverage and C-average students take written tests, deliver speeches and wear suits for professional interviews.
And on Saturday, they compete in the high-energy game-show style Super Quiz, the only public portion of the state contest.
Several East Valley high schools — including all six in the Mesa Unified School District — are among the top regional winners and are aiming for the national competition.
Mesa’s Mountain View High School, which has won 11 of the past 20 state competitions, finished first last month in the regional competition and remained the team to beat this weekend.
Mountain View’s regional performance also clinched a $5,500 college scholarship for each member of the team — even those with C averages.
"We just have very high expectations for the kids," said coach and physics teacher Curt Canaday. "Our kids leave a legacy behind them. Their picture will be on the wall. These kids can leave a mark on Mountain View."
The Mountain View team went to northern Arizona this weekend to drill each other on every subject. The students have been studying since last summer when they received their materials from the United States Academic Decathlon organization.
"Some of these kids, literally — if they’re awake and they’re not doing school work — this is what they do," Canaday said. "We have kids that show up at 7 a.m. here for an hour before school and are here every day during lunch."
The Mesa Unified School District is unique in that it offers an Academic Decathlon class that many competing districts don’t.
Red Mountain High School coach Brad Kaufman said more districts should offer the course as a way to create renaissance students. He said the competition is good for all students but especially positive for the C-students who are bright but may not have been inspired to challenge themselves before joining the team.
"My students were foaming at the mouth — they were excited to study space and study astronomy," Kaufman said. "They lit up like Christmas trees when I said we were studying astronomy and that space astrophysics was the topic this year."
Many incorrectly assume that teenagers are apathetic and want to avoid work, he said. But, in fact, teenagers take education "very seriously."
He said the Super Quiz brings on the greatest adrenaline rush as the students have 10 seconds to answer questions picked at random from hundreds of pages on astrophysics.
"It’s also time to cheer on education and being smart," Kaufman said.
Red Mountain junior Chris Wehrstein, 17, said students on the team planned out every single day this month in order to optimize their study time.
"We’re always doing something," he said. "We have pretty much planned out a lot of really heavy practices to get ready."
He said it’s not the testing itself that is thrilling to these students, considering most of the competition happens with No. 2 pencils and bubble sheets.
"It’s the preparation that’s fun," Wehrstein said. "The room is dead silent. All you hear is pencils."
Mesa’s Westwood High School placed third overall in regionals — a situation that coach Dan Phan said has students feeling under a lot of pressure considering the intense competition from other schools better known for academics.
But, like all the teams that will compete, the students have a mascot to back them up. Students traditionally hold up their mascot during Super Quiz when they know they’ve correctly answered a question.
Some students also wear costumes to set themselves apart.
Westwood holds up a wooden book that Phan said "represents the Book of Academic Souls," because he said, "in the beginning of the year I told the team, ‘I have your academic soul.’ "
Many teams have traveled far and wide to prepare for the event.
Dobson High School’s team traveled to New York City to view works of art and to be grilled by experienced businessmen on their interview skills.
"We want them to look professional during the interview so we had a businessman come in to inspect their clothing," coach Robert Cash said. "He came in and dressed them down, so to speak."
Cash said the students used to have a stuffed bunny as a mascot, which has since changed to a fan. One side has a smile and the other a frown to indicate how the team is doing during competition.
"I’m not a big ‘fan’ of the bunny because it’s not clever enough," Cash said. "Now we have the ‘Fan fan’ — named for team member Michael Fan, who is ranked No. 4 in the state."
Scottsdale Christian Academy is only in its second year of competition but made the top 10. Coach Karen Heald said she helped to motivate her team this year by agreeing to a challenge of her own: She trained for the P.F. Chang’s Rock ’n’ Roll Arizona Marathon.
"I’m 46 and out of shape, and it was a really cool picture for them to see it’s about incremental change," she said.
The group comes from a small school, and its coach is not a teacher but a mom.
"We’re going up against teams that come with two coaches and have a dedicated class for Academic Decathlon," she said. "Our team is coached by a housewife."
She expects a tense but exciting competition, after the team won the Rookie of the Year award during its first state competition last year.
"They have poker faces," Heald said. "They like to keep their cards close to their chest."
Teams to beat
The top 10 Academic Decathlon teams in Arizona following regional competition: 1. Mountain View, Mesa 2. Canyon del Oro, Tucson 3. Westwood, Mesa 4. Red Mountain, Mesa 5. Dobson, Mesa 6. St. John’s 7. North High, Phoenix 8. Scottsdale Christian Academy, Scottsdale 9. Round Valley, Eagar 10. Show Low High
Other E.V. contenders
17. Horizon, NE Phoenix 18. Highland, Gilbert 19. Skyline, Mesa 23. Mountain Pointe, Ahwatukee Foothills 25. Mesa High, Mesa 26. Marcos de Niza, Tempe 28. Mesquite, Gilbert 31. Heritage Academy charter school, Mesa 34. Hamilton, Chandler 36. Gilbert High 37. Chandler High
Mountain View High School has finished in the top five in the nation 10 times since 1990.
• Language and literature
• Social science
What: The only public portion of the state’s Academic Decathlon. When: 1 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday Where: Skyline High School, 845 S. Crismon Road, Mesa
For information on Academic Decathlon, visit www.azacadec.org
- Tribune writer TK Sawyer contributed to this report.