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Academic Decathlon: Growing Success, Bigger Ambitions

The WISH Academy Academic Decathlon team poses with their trophies at a competition gathering in February 2024.
The WISH Academy Academic Decathlon team poses with their trophies at a competition gathering in February 2024.

NOTE: Following the publication of this article,The Aviary was informed that Ms. Doyle is no longer likely to be able to teach Academic Decathlon as a class in the 2024-2025 school year due to new course load constraints. The growth of the program, and ultimately the creation of a class, remain as future goals.

WISH Academy boasts a wide variety of clubs and extracurricular activities to choose from, offering unique experiences found nowhere else. But the school also hosts teams competing in more universal high school events. One of these is Academic Decathlon, commonly known as AcaDeca, a nationally-recognized competition in which students compete in ten separate “events” testing their academic skills. WISH’s team of 9 competitors and two alternates has steadily improved since its 2021 founding, winning three trophies in a regional title in the past two years. Now, club advisor and math teacher Ms. Doyle hopes to transition WISH’s team in this demanding competition into its own class in order to give students more time to prepare for its events.

Academic Decathlon participants compete in teams of nine students, although they can be fielded with as few as six. Each team must sport competitors in three unweighted GPA-based brackets: Varsity (3.0-3.19), Scholastic (3.20-3.79), and Honors (3.8-4.0), with each bracket consisting of three team members. Although only the top two event scores from each bracket are counted towards the total points value, it is encouraged to have a team with three students from each bracket, allowing them each to excel in their strongest subject areas without weighing the team down in their harder tests. Teams compete in ten total events, although students usually think of them in three broad categories. The first category includes the seven subject tests, in which students complete timed exams on art, economics, language and literature, math, music, science, and social science. Each year, the subject packets are designed with a particular theme in mind—take 2024’s theme of science fiction, for example, where steampunk literature was the focus of the English section. The second event category is what students refer to as “Speech and Interview,” where competitors prepare and recite a 3-4 minute speech, draft and argue a 1-2 minute impromptu speech, and complete a 5-minute interview about a variety of adaptive topics. The last of the three event categories is SuperQuiz, a live head-to-head event scored separately from the other nine where participating schools compete against each other by bracket before the awards ceremony.

AcaDeca teams compete in three levels of competition: regional, state, and national. The regional competition takes place over successive weekends in January and early February; the state competition is in April and the national competition in May. WISH Academy is in a region consisting of Southern California private and charter schools, one of the most competitive in the U.S., and has yet to advance to a state competition. El Camino Real and Granada Hills Charter High Schools are the Southern California region’s two juggernauts; one of the two schools’ teams has been the national Academic Decathlon champion every year since at least 2012. These large schools have dedicated substantial time and staff support to their teams, which are highly competitive to get into and often discourage non-seniors from joining. California as a whole has a 21-year winning streak in the national competition.

Despite the stiff competition, WISH Academy’s team won third place overall in the region this year, beaten only by El Camino Real and Granada Hills—and first place in the separately-scored SuperQuiz event. But as WISH’s AcaDeca team has become more ambitious, it has faced an issue common to many extracurriculars: a lack of time. With ten subject packets to review, themed musical soundtracks and art pieces to memorize, and required books to read, there has scarcely been enough time between AcaDeca’s brief lunch club meetings and its after school practices to grow while tackling the enormous curriculum. To address this, Ms. Doyle is seeking to create an Academic Decathlon class next year, although the effort could be delayed by scheduling constraints. If a class is created, Ms. Doyle reported that 15 students had already signed up for it on the interest form; this number would likely fluctuate throughout the scheduling process as incoming students selected classes and students were shifted in and out in order to meet their course requirements. Ideally, Ms. Doyle said she’d like to field two teams in the future, competing within different divisions of the Southern California region.

Following the end of the regional tournament this year, the AcaDeca club also branched off to another pursuit: sending a team of four to the World Scholars’ Cup, a global academic competition founded by a Los Angeles-area former Academic Decathlon champion. The team performed well at the regional round in Pasadena over a Saturday and Sunday in April, qualifying them to attend a subsequent global round. However, the group was unable to attend, not having prepared by fundraising or booking flights for what would have been an international trip. Next year, Ms. Doyle says she hopes to attempt the advance fundraising and logistics necessary to bring a team to the global round, should they qualify again.

As with many of the school’s student organizations, the early success of WISH Academy’s Academic Decathlon program demonstrates the extraordinary things a small group of committed students and staff can achieve with relatively limited time and resources. Even while preparing for bigger things, Ms. Doyle still encourages students of all grades and GPAs interested in building confidence and developing knowledge and quick thinking skills to join Academic Decathlon next year. “My hope is usually that once I get you to do it one year, I can keep you coming back—because it’s one of those competitions where it sounds like it’s a lot of work, and it is, not gonna lie, but it’s also one of those things where they have a lot of fun with it. You know, preparing for speeches and giving those speeches, and being in awe at some of the speeches that your classmates can give, the thoughts your classmates have in your heads.”

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