Tuesday, 28 May 2024

Students in final preparations for Saturday Academic Decathlon

LAKE COUNTY – On Saturday, it will come down to this – eight months of strenuous academic study squeezed into five hours of testing.


It's called the Lake County Academic Decathlon, and it's a yearly showcase of the county's best and brightest students, who devote themselves to a rigorous scholastic commitment for months in order to have the honor of being the county champ, with a view to going for the gold at state.


Despite being a small rural county, Lake's academic decathletes have pretty much rocked it over the last decade. They've put on exciting exhibitions of skill and knowledge, and made not just their parents and teachers proud but also their community.


Upper Lake has been a state small school champion in recent years. In fact, in recent years, Upper Lake has been a bit of a juggernaut, gobbling up eight consecutive first place wins. Then, in 2007, Lower Lake ended the streak by winning the gold, with Upper Lake coming back with a win in 2008.


Robin Totorica, a Lake County Office of Education staffer who helps organize the yearly event, said this year's theme is Latin America.


Testing for the students will being at Middletown High School early on Saturday morning, said Totorica.


The day of exhausting tests will culminate in the excitement of the Super Quiz, the only part of the event open to the public. Totorica said that begins at 4 p.m. in the Middletown High multipurpose room, 20932 Big Canyon Road.


The winner of the county competition will advance to the California State Academic Decathlon, which is celebrating its 30th year. That competition will take place from March 13 through 16 in Sacramento.


Four schools will compete locally this year – in addition to Upper Lake and Lower Lake, there will be Clear Lake High and Middletown High, the latter of which will host this year's competition. A call to Middletown's coach was not returned.


Anna Sabalone, Upper Lake's coach, said the studying begins for the competition the previous May. “As soon as one year ends, the next begins.”


There are new dynamics to this year's competition. For one, this is Sabalone's first year on the job as Upper Lake's coach. She succeeds Tina Moore, who in sports terms was rather like the Bill Walsh of local academic decathlon competitions. Moore challenged her students beyond the classroom, and organized extracurricular trips overseas for interested students. Last fall, the group journeyed to Egypt.


Sabalone, who had assisted Moore with the academic decathlon preparation while she was still a substitute teacher, brings particular skills of her own, as well as experience having been an Upper Lake academic decathlete herself, under Moore's tutelage. She holds a master's degree and is an Upper Lake High grad, class of 2000.


“I kinda knew what I was getting into, or so I thought,” she said. But she's quick to add, “It's been worth it.”


Sabalone, who has taken over the school's art department, was a history major in college, and is scrappy enough to disagree with some of the answers to questions in the study materials. She's even taken her disagreements to the officials who prepare the tests. Sometimes they even change the materials, she said.


Nancy Harby, at the helm of the Lower Lake Academic Decathlon team, is a nine-year veteran of the contest.


This year she has a particularly interesting mix of students, among them a larger-than-usual representation of Hispanic American students excited that Latin America is this year's topic.


“The decathlon is really magic,” said Harby, no matter the subject.


Her students are getting excited and nervous – especially those who are competition veterans.


She says that, win or lose, it's participating that's the real victory for the students.


Teams are nine students in size; Harby has 17 total academic decathlon students. Sabalone said she started out with more than 20 students vying for nine team spots and two alternates.


Many exceptional young people are standouts in the competition.


Returning this year to Upper Lake's squad is 17-year-old Kyle Coleman of Upper Lake, who has been a medal winner in previous years, and just recently was named a winner of a $20,000 scholarship from the Horatio Alger National Scholarship Program.


He'll be facing tough competition from Lower Lake's Emmalena Illia, 17, of Clearlake Park, a senior in her third and final year of competition. She's been accepted to Mills College in Oakland.


Illia, the student representative on the Konocti Unified School District Board of Trustees, said it's crunch time, with lots of last-minute study and minimal sleep.


The standout student – also a talented athlete, known for racking up three point shots on the basketball court – spent last weekend reading through a packet of information on evolutionary biology, the topic of the Super Quiz. She said the connection between evolutionary biology and Latin America is that Charles Darwin spent time in the Galapagos Islands, where he drew information to develop his theory on evolution.


Illia said preparation also has included trips to Bay Area museums, study of art from the Mayan period to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and lectures by professors. She said her strengths are art and literatures, and she's hoping also to put in a strong performance in science.


Who will win this year?


Sabalone said she thinks her team has a decent chance of holding their own, but the academic decathlon is far different than sports, where you can scope out your competition.


“With the academic decathlon, you throw yourself in there and hope you've done enough,” she said.


Said Illia, “We have a lot of seniors on our team this year so we have a lot of experience.”


That includes a strong math element, with teammates who have taken on the challenging work of pre-calculus and calculus.


But Illia doesn't take anything for granted. “All the other teams are always strong and always great competitors,” she said.


Harby said the competition itself is transformational for her students. “More than anything I want them to get that love of learning.”


Most of her students go on to college, said Harby. “We do well here.”


She is, however, worried about why lies ahead for the academic decathlon program.


“I hope our program continues with all the budget cuts,” she said.


Harby said the district is starting to look at programs that don't serve a lot of students, which is the case with the academic decathlon.


“We have the reality of that razor of the budget cuts, the ax coming at us,” she said. “Everyone here is fearful of the impact of the state budget.”


Sabalone said she has enjoyed the dynamic of her group of students, who have done a great job in their studies. The competition, she said, inspires them to go above and beyond ordinance performance. “My biggest hope is my students have no regrets.”


She added, “Win or lose, it will be an interesting Saturday.”


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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