The sounds of quiet conversation and paper rustling fill a stuffy classroom at Mountain Pointe High School with a tense buzz as students huddle around fat notebooks preparing for competition.
It’s the Wednesday before the first Academic Decathlon scrimmage of the year and they are in serious study mode, some never looking up from their notes during the hour of lab time.
In this room are students with the highest grade point averages on the Mountain Pointe campus, those who are competing for valedictorian and all the best scholarships. There also are students with C averages who are sometimes reluctant to stop socializing on the outskirts of campus and actually enter the classroom.
“They are all united with one common theme,” says teacher K.R. Scott. “They are all the brightest.”
Academic Decathlon is a competition where students square off against teams from other schools and are tested in 10 categories, including art, economics, language and literature, mathematics and science. Each year, a different topic is chosen, and the students spend months studying every aspect of that topic in preparation for competition. This year’s topic: the Civil War.
Some students, like Mountain Pointe co-captain Hari Mohanraj, 16, spend more than 15 hours each week studying the material.
“We’re like the intellectual athletes of the school,” he says.
Academic Decathlon, or “ac dec” as the students fondly refer to it, has been around since 1981, when Dr. Robert Peterson, former superintendent of schools in Orange County, Calif., created it, believing that everyone’s learning potential could be maximized through a competitive challenge.
One aspect of the game that makes it unique from other academic competitions is that each team must include 3 “A” or honor students, 3 “B” or scholastic students, and 3 “C” or varsity students.
Academic competitions are fierce, and having students who don’t particularly like school on the team could be seen as an obstacle. But the Mountain Pointe team never views its varsity students as a handicap, Scott says. “Take Stephen, for example. School work bores him, but put him on a topic and he just goes for it.”
He’s talking about Stephen Auron, 17, who says he was dragged into joining the team by a friend who was already a member.
Bribed with an offer of three free sodas if he showed up to check it out, he figured he had nothing to lose.
“He actually hated it,” he says, referring to his friend. “He said it was a lot of fun, but it was too much hard work. So, I didn’t really know what to expect.”
Auron is a varsity team member, which means his GPA is in the “C” range. He admits that school is not his favorite.
“It’s not like I hate it,” he says. “There’s just a thousand other places I’d rather be.”
But Academic Decathlon gives him something to look forward to most days.
“I’m not the most motivated, but I’ll come to ac dec because it’s interesting,” he says.
Auron and other varsity members don’t earn straight “A”s, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be academically engaged.
“You can’t just throw crumbs to them, because when they want to learn, they learn like nobody’s business,” Scott says.
Scott has been coaching Academic Decathlon for 15 years and enjoys figuring out ways to keep students like Auron interested. “It’s a challenge to find things that excite them intellectually.”
It’s also a challenge for the honor students, Scott says, who are often set in their learning habits by the time they get to high school. Working side by side with each other, the “C” students often learn better study habits and ways to learn, but the “A” students often learn social skills they didn’t have before.
“I like to say Academic Decathlon is a social service agency for bright kids,” Scott says. “This gives them all a place to be and unconditional acceptance.”
Seventeen-year-old Sam Lundberg says he fits in more with his Academic Decathlon friends than with any other group on campus.
“I’m a talker, and here, there’s always something to talk about,” he says. “I’m a person who knows random facts, and has random interests. Here, there are other people like me.”
When a heated debate disrupts the rhythm of study time in lab, it’s because Lundberg is arguing that George McClellan was a “wimp among wimps” who would not have been able to negotiate a peaceful end to the Civil War sooner had he won the 1864 election.
The other young men in his group — varsity, scholastic and honor students — disagree, all talking over one another to make their point.
“This is why I do this,” Scott says, an excited grin on his face as he observes from a nearby chair.
All the students know each other’s GPAs, but they don’t judge one another based on numbers, Scott says. “They all know every person in the room is smart.”
Still, working with teammates who don’t learn in the traditional ways they are used to is tough for some honor students.
“It’s hard at times,” admits team co-captain Ian McClosky, 16. “You have to watch out for everybody, make sure they’re all getting it. You have to make sure the varsity students are constantly engaged, or else sometimes you lose them.”
The Mountain Pointe team won its first competition at the school’s invitational on Nov. 17, beating 11 other local teams. The team broke 40,000 points in doing so, its highest score at the event.
The team will now prepare for a scrimmage at Queen Creek in January, regionals in February and the capstone state competition back at Mountain Pointe in March. Scott says he is looking forward to seeing how this group performs.
“I have very high hopes for this team of ours.”