By Monique Harrison

Daily Journal

Tupelo High School junior Sarah Robinson is well aware of the winning legacy of her school’s Academic Decathlon team.

It’s something the team member couldn’t forget if she wanted to.

“People in the community – especially people at my church and at the Wellness Center – are always asking how practices are going, when competition is and if we’re going to win,” Robinson said. “There is a lot of interest in whether we are going to win again. It’s important to them.”

There are times when the pressure is enough to put students on edge.

“I’m a little nervous,” Robinson said during an afternoon practice at Tupelo High School last week. “We have these expectations we have to live up to.”

It’s almost impossible for the community not to expect great things from the team.

After all, Tupelo High School holds claim to 10 state Academic Decathlon titles in the game-show-style competition that is designed to test students’ knowledge of nine subject areas. In 1994, they placed eighth in national competition and in 1995, they were eighth out of a field of about 45.

Senior Bryant Hill – the only returning member of last year’s team – knows how highly the Tupelo team is regarded during the event, which is being held today and Saturday at Mississippi College in Clinton.

“Once they figure out you’re from Tupelo, people ask you a lot of questions,” Hill said. “They’re interested when they find out we have one period of the day set aside to practice for this. They’re surprised our school puts that much emphasis on it. They want to know why we win. And they usually try to size us up – decide how … ready we are.”

Students take the class as a humanities elective, receiving a grade for their mastery of material covered.

Giving it their all

Coaches Lynn McAlpin and Bonnie Webb demand total devotion from the nine students selected to compete.

“They really push you to do this well,” said senior Jana E. Kellems. “They drive you. They are dedicated to this themselves, and they want you to do your best to win.”

Twenty students tried out for the nine-member team last year, participating in a weeklong, schoolwide version of the state competition. State and national guidelines require that an equal number of A, B and C students be named to the team.

The three highest scorers in each division are given slots on the prestigious team.

Intensive studying began for most team members in November, when outlines of the information competitors are expected to master were first distributed.

Team members practice together for an hour each day during their set-aside class period. After-school practice sessions are usually held three times each week and typically last about two hours.

And then there is the time students spend at home and in small groups, studying and restudying the material they are expected to rattle off at the state competition, which serves as a qualifier for national championships, to be held in Atlanta this spring.

“A lot of work is involved in this – more than they tell you going in,” Robinson said, laughing. “I don’t think most people realized what they were getting into.”

In fact, even last weekend’s iced roads didn’t stop students from gathering.

“Oh, we practiced, believe me,” McAlpin said. “We were able to meet and study at a student’s house for several hours every day. We had to get that practice time in, regardless.”

Study sessions fun

But students say they enjoy the hours they put in learning the material.

“I do it because it’s fun – learning is fun,” Hill said. “That’s the real reason.”

Senior Brandon Ashcraft’s driving motive is a little different.

“I just want to win,” said Ashcraft, who is involved in a long list of other extracurricular activities, including chorus, drama and band. “That’s the reason I entered. I’m very competitive and this is the best competition around to be involved with.”

Coaches say they invest the long hours for a different reason.

“There’s a tremendous satisfaction that comes with seeing a group of students grow from having a lack of commitment to seeing their goals reached – seeing weaknesses become strengths,” Webb said. “I’ve seen students who couldn’t stand to speak become comfortable with it. That takes work.”

McAlpin said the program is not just another chance for high school students to add to their trophy collection.

“Academic Decathlon has changed the lives of a lot of students,” she said. “It gives them the opportunity to prove themselves and to learn material they might not otherwise be exposed to. The students in this program have gone on to do very well.”

More than academic

skills built

Students on this year’s team have sharpened more than their academic skills.

“A broad base of political beliefs can be found on this team,” McAlpin said. “They’ve learned to discuss things and work together, accepting those differences. They have some spirited social discussions. It’s fun to watch.”

Team members say they try to have fun, even in the heat of studying.

“When we study after school, it’s never two hours of solid studying,” Ashcraft said, as he toyed with a frog model used to help students with biology questions. “We always tend to find something humorous about the material. We’re always laughing about something. This is not boring – not at all.”

And win or lose Saturday afternoon, students say they know the experience is one they wouldn’t trade.

“I’ve grown from this,” Robinson said. “I was telling my mom last night that there’s not a single subject that could be brought up in a conversation that I would be totally clueless about. This has helped broaden my knowledge – made me more well-rounded. And that’s worth something.”

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