Decathletes flex their academic muscles - The Explorer: Import

Decathletes flex their academic muscles

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Posted: Wednesday, February 23, 2005 12:00 am | Updated: 7:50 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Feb. 23, 2005 - These students run academic marathons, swim academic oceans, bike academic mountains and hurl academic shot puts.

They are members of Chris Yetman's Academic Decathlon team and they are as trained and toned as the best athletes. On Feb. 5, they flexed their academic muscles and won their district competition by what Yetman calls an "embarrassingly large margin."

Academic Decathlon is a national program focusing on 10 particular subject areas.

"I tell the students it's not for the faint of heart because what we're really doing is learning the curriculum of seven freshman college-level courses," said Yetman, who is an AP calculus teacher at Canyon del Oro High School. "We're learning basic art history, music appreciation, astronomy 101, they have to learn macro and micro economics Š and these kids are already taking honors and advanced placement classes in addition."

Most students study about three hours each night, he said, and also meet on weekends for group study sessions.

Hopeful members of Yetman's team enroll in the Honors Academic Decathlon course and the top nine students are allowed on the team.

Yetman said the three unusual aspects of the Academic Decathlon program are its requirement to take students from all levels of the grade point average spectrum, its breadth of topics and the way it capitalizes on competitiveness.

"I can't just take the top kids in the school," Yetman explained.

Academic Decathlon teams are broken into "honors," "scholastic" and "varsity" components - respectively, students with unweighted GPAs in certain subjects of 3.75 and above, between 3.75 and 3.0, and below 3.0.

The students who experience the most life-changing success with Academic Decathlon tend to be the varsity students, Yetman said.

"They're usually the C students who have never really been inspired by high school and something about decathlon just turns them on and gets them interested in learning," he said. "They get interested in succeeding and they go on and do well, not only in decathlon but in school and college, etc."

Evan Secan was one of those students, according to his mother, Lisa. He was on the CDO Academic Decathlon last year.

"Our son is one of these smart underachiever types," she said. "This kid put more in effort on this than he has ever done anything in his whole life."

The C-average student went on to receive a partial academic scholarship from Northern Arizona University, where he is a freshman.

"He proved it to himself, most of all, that he could do something like this," Lisa Secan said. "We knew he could do it, and he did."

Sophie Anderson is on Yetman's team this year and like Evan Secan is a varsity-level student.

Her mother, Julia, said Academic Decathlon has brought out in her daughter a confidence she always knew existed within her.

"She's always been capable of much more than she's ever shown and now she's really showing it," Julia Anderson said. "It's brought out the achiever that was down in there."

The more traditional academic achievers also have a place in Academic Decathlon.

Yetman gave the example of Elizabeth Roberts, a "phenomenal" student who as a freshman is taking AP calculus and chemistry plus college courses.

The close-knit Academic Decathlon group, lead by award-winning teacher Yetman, is a big draw for many students.

"There's a certain eccentric quality to how they approach things and they found each other and Yetman the same way," Julia Anderson continued. "He's very much one of them, but they really respect him, they adore him, and he has lived up to that adoration. It's really neat."

Yetman also is a 2005 finalist for the Arizona Teacher of the Year award.

"The fun for me is that they are all very, very intelligent and very, very eccentric," he said. "We meet every day, plus they tend to live in my classroom. This is my planning room and I've got five (students) in here right now."

Every year, the Academic Decathlon focuses on one particular curriculum. This year, it's the ancient world.

Yetman said it is exciting to see students get excited about learning and becoming more well-rounded students.

"It's not like a Jeopardy or quiz bowl where kids just have to know random facts that don't have anything to do with anything," he said.

According to the Academic Decathlon Web site, founder Dr. Robert Peterson wanted to create a program that "does not permit participants to specialize but rather … encourages academic versatility by requiring students to prepare for all 10 events."

Those are art, economics, essay, interview, language and literature, mathematics, music, science, social science and speech.

So students this year are learning about art from Babylonia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. They are studying astronomy, which relates to the science of the time, and the history of the Near East, Greece, Rome and Egypt.

After placing first in the regional competition Feb. 5, the school's team of nine is headed to Mesa's Skyline High School March 11 and 12.

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