Battle of the brains goes virtual

10 high school teams to vie for RI Academic Decathlon title

Posted 2/24/21

“Anything is possible through Zoom,” Rhode Island Academic Decathlon director Frank Lenox said.

Because of COVID restrictions, the annual competition will be held virtually this year …

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Battle of the brains goes virtual

10 high school teams to vie for RI Academic Decathlon title


“Anything is possible through Zoom,” Rhode Island Academic Decathlon director Frank Lenox said.

Because of COVID restrictions, the annual competition will be held virtually this year – a task that is not without its challenges.

Among the changes to this year’s competition is a new coach for Bishop Hendricken High School, ending over 25 years of coaching from Sister Carol Anne Murray and potentially Hendricken’s 10-year winning streak.

According to Lenox, Rhode Island Academic Decathlon, or RIAD, has a large focus on socialization. “We really try to make it a social event,” he explained. “In a typical year, we’d gather at CCRI. Students would be testing in rooms with students from other schools, so it was very much a social environment. Unfortunately, this year we’re losing that.”

The events will be held virtually on Sunday, March 7.

Lenox explained that two events, speech and interview, will be taking place via Zoom. “Through using breakout rooms in Zoom, judges will be assigned, and as students join the Zoom meeting, they will be moved into the breakout rooms for a time window. For that window, they will present their prepared speech and do an impromptu speech, and then judges will score using a Google Form.”

The other subject tests will be taking place through an online platform developed by the United State Academic Decathlon organization, explained Lenox. The software used during the competition is also used for practice tests, so it’s familiar and reliable for students.

“Being an academic competition, people tend to think it’s for smart or brainy kind of kids, but we distinguish between different divisions. We have three divisions based on GPA [grade point average], so students are competing against other students of similar abilities,” Lenox said.

The 10 subject areas of the competition, all revolving around a central theme, are math, science, language and literature, social sciences, art, music, economics, written essay, speech and interview.

Cold War theme

The theme of this year’s Academic Decathlon competition is the Cold War, a topic Toll Gate High School coach Steve Belanger says is “apropos” for the present day.

“This is something the students are studying right now, so it shouldn’t be new to them,” he said, sharing that students have expressed more interest and enthusiasm in this year’s topic as compared to previous years. “During that time, even if you were not a political person, you couldn’t ignore the political reality, even if you weren’t inclined to think that way. That’s where people find themselves today.”

Approximately 100 students from 10 schools across the state will be participating, including Bishop Hendricken, Classical High School, East Greenwich High School, Johnston High School, La Salle Academy, North Providence High School, South Kingstown High School, Toll Gate High School, the Wheeler School and Westerly High School, plus nine additional students making up nine alternate teams. Fifty volunteers are needed for the event, and Lenox says while organizers are not there yet, they will hit the goal by the event.

The number of competing schools is about half of what it has been over the past decade. And with fewer schools, there’s not the same demand for volunteers. Many volunteers are longtime volunteers from the community. “Once they judge a speech and/or interview event, they keep coming back year after year,” Lenox said.

Overcoming challenges

Steve Belanger has been an Academic Decathlon coach for 19 years, and hasn’t seen a competition quite like this.

“It’s a bit of a surreal coaching experience, and I’m happy with the ones who are on the team and they’re trying their best. During the COVID times, that’s all you can ask for,” he said in an interview.

One of the hardest parts about this year, Belanger says, is the scheduling.

“This year is very different and more challenging, because kids used to come to meetings after school or to advisory periods. And now, it’s more challenging to corral these kids, but things change all the time and you just have to roll with it,” he said.

The virtual essay portion took place on Tuesday, Feb. 23, where students were tasked with writing about a historical event from the Cold War or the significance of Kurt Vonnegut’s book “Cat’s Cradle.”

Belanger is coaching a team of six students at Toll Gate High School this year. In years past, he coached two or three Decathlon teams at a time, and “normally I’d have nine, 18, or up to 33 kids,” he explained. “I think I was the first coach in the state to do three teams in a year at Warwick Vets when it was still a high school.”

While this year may not have the number of participants that Belanger has seen in the past, he is confident in their quality. “We had lots of medal winners last year, and many of them are coming back this year,” he said. “These guys know what to do. Since they’ve won medals before, they know what to do to win again.”

New coach for Hendricken

Last year, Bishop Hendricken High School won the Decathlon and represented Rhode Island at the national competition, where they placed second in their division. This was Hendricken’s 10th consecutive state title.

However, this year, the Hendricken Academic Decathlon team has a new coach. Leeanne Soprano, who teaches Spanish at the high school, succeeds Sister Carol Anne Murray who led the team for over 25 years.

“I didn’t expect to be doing this, but I just dove right in,” Soprano said during an interview last week. “It sounds like I went in blind, which is half true, the other half is you have to live it to understand what everything is about.”

Soprano has big shoes to fill.

“The expectation is that we can do it, although we are losing the GOAT (greatest of all time) of Academic Decathlon coaches,” she said of replacing Sister Carol Anne. “It’s the boys who take the tests and give the speeches, and my goal is to really showcase that it’s them who are talented and deserve our applause and admiration. I want to prove that it’s them; it’s been them the whole time.”

This is Soprano’s first time as a Decathlon coach, and says the experience has already taught her “so much.”

“As much as I’m the coach to the boys, they’ve been my coaches as well, which has been wonderful,” she said of Hendricken’s team, which has nine members this year. “I am so, so impressed by what it takes to be on the team and all the moving parts that make for a successful Academic Decathlon team. On the surface, it’s already a huge undertaking; the content alone requires hours and hours of studying. My job is to make sure the guys are doing those hours and hours of studying.”

Soprano says despite the challenges of meeting virtually, the camaraderie between team members has been “inspirational.”

“Meeting virtually isn’t the worse thing in the world. There have been some really great moments when the seniors were teaching younger students. This is definitely harder to accomplish virtually; it’s now become a lot of independent work.”

State title for Johnston?

Debbie Smyth, Johnston High School co-coach, believes this might be the year Johnston beats Hendricken. Johnston came in third place in last year’s competition, with several students winning individual awards. Smyth, a business teacher at the high school, coaches alongside Kerri Murphy, who teaches art.

“I don’t know how, but Hendricken hand picks their kids,” said Smyth in an interview last week. “Carol Ann used to only pick kids who aren’t involved in any other activity so they can just focus on Academic Decathlon. We can’t do that in public school. Hendricken always won, and it’s just expected. But this year we have a great chance. We may not have a big team, but I think we have some really, really good kids.”

There are 11 students on Johnston’s team this year, but Smyth says two years ago they had over 20 students. “We weren’t able to really promote Academic Decathlon this year, and usually we do classroom presentations and meet with students.”

What sets Johnston High School apart is Smyth and Murphy’s immersive approach to Decathlon training. The coaches usually plan a trip that coincides with the competition’s theme. For example, Smyth and Murphy took students to the John F. Kennedy Museum in Boston for hands-on learning about the 1960s. When the theme was Africa, Smyth and Murphy brought in a community member who emigrated from the Congo to work with students and serve as a primary resource. With the COVID restrictions, Smyth says they’ve found it difficult to give students that extra level of coaching.

Even team bonding traditions aren’t quite the same. Smyth explained one tradition the team has takes place on Friday before the competition. “The students are excused from class, so we spend all day in the library, all the members and us, practicing and quizzing. Everybody collaborates and works together. We get pizza and bring snacks, and it’s honestly a team bonding thing.”

While Smyth doesn’t think the bonding events will happen in the same ways this year, she is confident in the chemistry and strengths of the team. “That’s the misconception, it has to be all A students. It’s not about that. You don’t have to be an A student, you can be a B or C student. You can focus more on the areas you’re better at and get a medal in those areas.”

One key part of the RIAD is the awards ceremony, during which medals are given to the students who place highest in each category. While Lenox doesn’t have an exact plan for the ceremony yet, he said it would most likely be a prerecorded video. “The hope is to have board members of RIAD and distinguished members of the community presenting the awards,” he said. The medals will be distributed to each school’s coach, and then given to the students.

Lenox explained that seniors who win gold medals are considered for a $500 scholarship award, and the winning team will be invited to compete at nationals. Typically, RIAD would cover the cost of travel for the winning team; however, the national Decathlon competition will also be held virtually this year.

“Last year we were very fortunate,” Lenox said. “We conducted our competition on the 8th of March, and a week later the state was in lockdown. Had we been a week later, we would have lost the opportunity.”

Lenox is thankful to be able to put on a competition this year, despite the circumstances. “We’ve had time to plan, and schools and students expressed interest in competing. In this year, when many student’s extracurricular have been either curtailed in some manner or eliminated all together, I’m very pleased that the board members and the communities have come together to provide students with this opportunity.”


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