Shawnee Mission South High School junior Regina Yan was a little reluctant to become captain of the award-winning Academic Decathlon team at her school. After all, the team was coming off a 13-year state championship winning streak.
“As team captain, there is definitely more pressure,” Yan said. “You don’t want to be the one person that messes up the record.”
Far from messing anything up, Yan and her teammates walked away with their 14th straight first-place state championship finish during competition last month at Kansas State University. Now they’re headed to the national competition April 24-26 in a dream location: Honolulu, Hawaii.
“I am so proud of how much everyone accomplished, and heading to Hawaii is the delicious frosting on the cake,” Yan said.
Academic Decathlon is a national scholastic competition that tests intellectual strength in 10 categories, including art, music, economics, math, science, history and literature. Rounding out the 10 categories are speeches, essay writing and interview questions.
Each category focuses on one topic, which this year is World War I. With the exception of the speech, essay and interview portions, students prove their knowledge of the categories mostly through a series of multiple choice tests. Last year, 55 teams from across the country competed in the national competition.
Stan Stern has coached the Academic Decathlon team at Shawnee Mission South for the past nine years. The nine juniors and seniors on the team all are in the school’s gifted program.
Stern attributes the school’s long history of success at the state championship with the mentoring that students do from year to year.
“There are always a few students returning from the year before and the new students learn from the returning students and get inspired by them on how to study the material,” Stern said. “They do a good job of motivating new students.”
Studying is a big part of life for members of the team. At the end of the year, each team member is assigned a binder of nearly 1,000 pages of reading material that covers all of the categories for the upcoming year.
It takes a lot of discipline to be a member of this team. While the group meets once a week for about an hour after school, members are largely responsible for studying on their own. In the weeks leading up to competition, students can spend about two hours a night studying material — on top of their regular homework.
It’s a lot of information to take in at one time, but junior Isaac Lanan said the group has a proven technique for learning so many facts.
“We divide and conquer,” Lanan said. “Everyone is assigned a PowerPoint presentation over a section and then they teach the rest of the team that section.”
Lanan feels like the team’s close relationship is one of the reasons the group has excelled at this year’s regional and state competitions.
“The key to our team’s success is that we are more than a team: We are friends and we do stuff outside of studying,” Lanan said.
The team is looking forward to a little fun in Hawaii once their studying and hard work is finished. A trip to the beach is at the top of the list.
“Hawaii was a great motivator to try to get us to win state,” Yan said. “We really want to enjoy Hawaii, meet new people from all over the country and have a great time.”
Not surprisingly, the team’s upcoming competition in paradise is attracting a lot of attention at school.
“Teachers have been volunteering to chaperone in Hawaii,” Stern joked.
One person who will be there cheering the team on is Stern. Team members say the team would never be as successful as it is without his leadership.
“I think we owe it to Mr. Stern because he does a really good job of organizing things,” Lanan said.
“A lot of the credit has to be given to Mr. Stern,” she said. “He is such a hardworking coach and he really cares.”