Academic Decathlon at Rutherford High School
Updated: Aug 28, 2019
By Jennifer Ersalesi
As a new school year begins, students at Rutherford High School have the opportunity to choose from a number of extracurricular activities (see list here). Academic Decathlon is one of those choices. TIR spoke with RHS's Academic Decathlon Advisor, Jason Narozny, who is also a RHS English teacher, to learn more about this unique group, their success, and plans for this upcoming year.
TIR: What is an Academic Decathlon?
Jason Narozny: It is a nationwide educational competition where we develop skills in 10 different areas of study: Literature, Art, Music, History, Science, Economics, Math, Essay, Speech, and Interview. Each year, the United States Academic Decathlon organizers select a different topic of study. The first six subjects explore that chosen topic in-depth, usually at an advanced honors level, if not college-level. The students read and study Resource Guides (mini-textbooks of about 100 pages each), which they then outline, present, and/or teach to each other. The competition comes via multiple-choice tests, plus the subjective subjects above. To prep, I have the team take various practice tests throughout the season to gauge understanding and to refocus our studies. Some of the topics over the years have been WW1, The Renaissance, India, the 1960s, Africa. This year the topic is Healthcare: Exploration of Illness and Wellness.
TIR: Who can participate in the Academic Decathlon?
JN: Any student willing to do the work can participate. But what is unique about AD is that all levels of GPAs are needed. It is required that I have A, B, C, and below students on the team. It is the core principle of the organization that all students, regardless of educational ability, be given the opportunity to learn and achieve at an advanced level.
TIR: What type of schedule does the team follow?
JN: We begin our preparation for the next year in May by writing a 4-minute speech. The study materials arrive late May and the team should begin reading and outlining the material over the summer. During the school year, we meet twice a week for about 2 to 3 hours per meeting. The most successful teams I've had have also met on their own at least two additional times per week. There is also homework every week, mostly consisting of reading and outlining.
TIR: When and where are competitions held?
JN: They have been held at various high schools around the state, mostly at Ramapo HS. There are only 2 state-level competitions: Regionals in late January & the State Championship in late February, early March.
There are 4 regions in NJ, composed of about 40 teams. The top 16-18 teams go on to compete in the State competition. The state champions go on to compete at Nationals in April which are held in different states every year. This year it is in Alaska. So basically, we study for about 9 to 10 months and only compete twice, maybe three times if we win. This is very unlike most competitive teams in high school!
Rutherford was one of the founding members of the competition in NJ, starting in 1986. We have made it to States 19 out of the past 20 years. We were also State champs in 2009 and 2010.
TIR: Why is being part of Academic Decathlon at RHS a rewarding experience?
JN: It might seem strange that teenagers want to study more than school requires. I've found that many of the students I've coached had something to prove, whether to themselves, their friends, their teachers, or even to their own families. AD gives the students a chance to see that. When you set a high goal and work diligently toward it, the efforts can be incredibly rewarding -- whether or not you win. The effort alone provides them with confidence, self-awareness, and self-respect. Also, top-scoring Decathletes in each GPA category win scholarship money. Plus, they get medals for the top three scores in each subject.
TIR: What do Decathletes take away from their experiences?
JN: Knowledge in areas of study regular high school classes don't have the time to cover, as well as time management, test-taking, and critical thinking skills.
TIR: With the new school year approaching, when does the Academic Decathlon team begin practicing and how often?
JN: Our first three meetings are in August, 3 hours per day. We'll meet twice per week from September through February, 2 to 3 hours per meeting, usually Tuesdays and Thursdays.
TIR: How long have you been the AD Advisor?
JN: I'm now in my 21st year.
TIR: What do you enjoy about being the AD Advisor?
JN: As an educator, getting the students to become scholars, especially the ones who don't think they have it in them, is always a rewarding challenge. I love watching their confidence grow when the team coalesces into a family. I love the jokes that develop as we learn the materials during countless hours of review. But on a personal (and selfish) level, it's intellectually rewarding to learn, study, and teach brand new material every year, especially in the subjects beyond my Literature purview.