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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Cesar Chavez High School Has Built an Academic Decathlon Powerhouse

Cesar Chavez High School has always been known for its strong sports teams. The Champions Boys team had another great playoff run in basketball, but it may be the Academic Decathlon team that has had the most success at the school.

Cesar Chavez won the Region II Academic Decathlon for the second straight year in February, and they will be heading to the State Decathlon for the 11th consecutive year. And for the last two years, the Champions were ranked #2 going into State, among the 40 teams that qualified.     Last year, Chavez had its highest state finish, placing fourth. The State Decathlon will be held March 10-11 at ASU West. Only the winner of that competition goes to the Nationals, which is in Madison, Wisconsin in April.

Academic Decathlon is like the Olympic Decathlon, with ten events. Seven of the events are multiple choice essays covering art, music, social science, science, economics, literature and mathematics. The essay event is a 50-minute writing assignment. There is a speech event that involves a timed prepared speech and an impromptu speech, and an interview. Both the speech and the interview are a test of courage and poise, with adult judges looking on.   A team is made up of nine students, competing in three divisions based on grade point averages- Honors, Scholastic and Varsity.

William Kibler has been the Chavez Academic Decathlon coach for the past 11 years. He has led the Champions to Top 3 finishes in Region for the last eight years, and the Top 10 in the State for the past seven years.

Academic Decathlon is more than an extracurricular activity for Phoenix Union Schools. It is an elective class, with 30 or more students, from freshmen to seniors.

“We are lucky in this district to have an elective class. I have 34-36 students, and 40-42 in summer school. I have a waiting list for kids getting in the class. And I have had 7th and 8th grade parents who want to reserve a spot when their student gets to high school,” Kibler said.

He is unabashed when he says he recruits students, and others come to him because they have had brothers, sisters or cousins who have been in Academic Decathlon.   How do you know when you have found the right student?

“It’s hard to translate. If I was to use one word, it is ‘light.’ Is there a light in their eyes, a hunger to do more, be more and rise above?   You don’t need raw intelligence, but you have to be motivated.”

The class is fluid. Kibler has to cut students who don’t perform in December, and bring in new students in the spring. There are practice exams and a November scrimmage at which all the students compete. If a senior doesn’t make the top nine spots for competition, he is dropped from the class after first semester.

“I hate to cut anyone, but that is why it is a 9th hour class at the end of the day. It’s ‘no harm, no foul.’ They don’t have to go find another class to take.”

A day in the class could cover two or three topics at the same time. One day it is economics and art basics, tomorrow, its math, and the next day, speeches. As an Academic Decathlon teacher, you also have to prepare a different course each year. This year’s topic was World War II.

“We find out our topic in March, but don’t get a resource guide of 1,000 pages of material until just before summer school, and then you try to supplement that with books and other material on your own. It’s challenging. I have to reinvent everything each year, and I learn right along with the kids. I learn something new every year. I take the practice exams with the students. I can talk in depth about jazz, or art history, which I learned through Academic Decathlon.”

In fact, he became so enthralled with art history, that he now teaches it as a class at Chavez, along with his advanced placement social studies classes.

Not surprisingly, his decathletes do well in art, along with economics and music. That is Chavez’s strategy for success.   Kibler says to compete with some of the more affluent teams that score so high in math and English, you have to even the playing field. And when your team is mostly made up of minority students, some whom are speaking English as a second language, you have to battle bias, as well.

“Yes, there is some of that. Our scores drop perceptively when we go up against those schools in state, compared to regionals, in events such as speech and interview. When we walk into that competition we are always the most diverse team there. I have seen judges write racist comments on the back of the score sheet.”

“Many of the kids we compete against have more real world experiences. One school took their team to Normandy, France to prep for the World War II theme this year.”

Last year, the team finished 1500 points behind state champion Canyon del Oro, but 1200 of those points came in math.

Depth is Cesar Chavez’s strength. Often times their top five or six decathletes are only 100-200 points apart. In a 10,000-point competition, that may be the difference of five questions. But to win, the Champions need everyone to do well.

“If one cops out, we lose. All nine kids have to buy in. And they are. There is not much more I can ask of them.   There is a culture here. Winning begets more winning. All they want is a chance to do well as a school and a program.”

And Chavez isn’t out for any moral victories, even though a Phoenix Union team has never won a state title in Academic Decathlon. Five of the nine decathletes have state competition experience from last year.

“We want to win. We play to win. I am inordinately proud that these students can break expectations and excel to such a huge degree.

This year’s Cesar Chavez Academic Decathlon team

Honors Division: Benjamin Kibler (senior), Alyssa Turner (senior), Samuel Porter (sophomore)

Scholastic Division: Rodrigo Terrazas (senior), Victor Hernandez (junior), Jennifer Gonzalez (senior)

Varsity Division: Karrecia Crawley (senior): Gerardo Nino Pozos (senior), Claudia Corrales (senior)

Written by Craig Pletenik

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