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From Russia with love — of learning

Casa Grande High School teens study on Jan. 28 in preparation for the Academic Decathlon regional competition taking place on Feb. 2.

Dyann Espinosa/for the Argus-Courier
Published: Friday, February 1, 2013 at 8:46 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 1, 2013 at 8:46 a.m.

Spread around a typical school room, a group of high school students are engrossed in study — some clustered together, quizzing each other with flash cards, others sunk into yellow bean bag chairs with books in their laps, and some crowded around a computer. Two students debate a flash card question and the group gives a “High Five” to the one with the correct answer.

The question? “What political right did the 1936 Soviet Constitution extend to all individuals?”

Most people would be hard-pressed to know the answer, but these Casa Grande High School students do. They are taking part in the Academic Decathlon, a prestigious event founded in 1981 to provide students the opportunity to excel academically through team competition.

The overall topic they must master for 2013 is “Russia,” a formidable achievement for the typical 17-year-old, who may be more familiar with the latest pop culture icon than Mikhail Gorbachev. But these students are just as enthused by absorbing the weighty details of Russian culture, politics, music, literature and science as they are about knowing all the latest “Gangnam Style” dance moves.

There are approximately 500 high schools and 13,000 students in the California Academic Decathlon. Each nine-member team must include three A students, three B students, and three C or below students.

“This requirement is a way to reach students who don't thrive with traditional teaching methods, but have good potential,” explains math and physics teacher Richard Pillsbury, who coached the competition for Casa Grande for 25 years and is spearheading the math, art, music and economics sections this year.

Andrew Aja, a world history teacher at Casa Grande, is this year's coach. Aja participated in the competition in 2004 when he was a student at the school and brings a wealth of anecdotal information to the team.

“My older sister competed and my parents encouraged me, even though I was not a straight-A honor student,” he said.

The program has become such an integral part of Casa Grande that students who join “Ac Dec”, as they call it, are not regarded as nerds, but treated like athletes. With a long history of success in the competition, there is a certain cachet that adds a “cool” factor to being a participant.

For senior Lauren Dion, it has been a way to open up her mind to new ideas. “I've wanted to be an architect since I was a kid,” says Dion, “but I have started looking at the field differently. I'm not stuck on one outlook now because I took a chance and went outside my 'comfort' zone.'”

Her study partner, Erin Nicholson, went through the competition as a junior. Now in her senior year, she recognizes that she benefits from the group's support in areas where she has difficulties. “I have received unconditional help when I need it,” she says. “We're a team and we want everyone to be the best they can be.”

Student Eric Singer envisions a career as a doctor. “I want to explore all the facets from working in primary care to research,” said Singer. “The wonder and desire to learn shouldn't be allowed to dwindle and Ac Dec is helping me find my way.”

The week of Jan. 28 is particularly intense for the students, though they have been studying nonstop since last summer. Participants get excused from their other classes to devote all five days to study before the regional competition on Feb. 2. From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and then each night from 6 to 8 p.m. — a total of 48 hours —the students are focused on absorbing information for the competition, called the Super Quiz Relay.

This portion of the competition is open to the public, so parents and friends attend to cheer them on. If the team wins this trial, it goes on to vie for top honors at the state level.

Coach Aja credits the program with giving him greater self-esteem in his quest to become a teacher. Pillsbury agrees with him. “The two most important areas the competition readies you for are the ability to make a speech and your interview skills. That confidence lasts a lifetime.”

(Contact Dyann Espinosa at argus@arguscourier.com)

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