County Defunds Academic Decathlon

Alexandra Reinecke, Editor-in-Chief

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In 2013 and 2014 Academic Decathlon squad won Nationals. This fall, they were defunded.

According to advisor and AP European history teacher Paul Verbanszky, who has led the program since 2006, Academic Decathlon (AcaDeca) has run in Contra Costa County for many decades; Campolindo’s program began in the 1980s.

Alumni like chemistry teacher Stephanie Verbanszky and history teacher Tom Renno participated in the extracurricular throughout their own high school careers.

Acadeca’s more recent history has been one of impressive achievement. The team defeated Acalanes at the regional competition in 2011 to make it to State, advanced to win most improved at State in 2012, and advanced beyond State to win Nationals the following 2 years. This winning streak ended two seasons ago in 2015, when the team lost by a narrow margin to a southern California private school which enjoyed superior funding.

“My strong team members had graduated. The remaining members rested on their laurels. The other program had access to more practice materials, the capacity to hire consultants for specific topics, and stipends for individual coaches,” said Verbanszky of that loss.

While this is the 1st season AcaDeca has been completely cut off, finances have, as in the case of their 2015 defeat, played a considerable roll in their declining record of achievement. “We’re unable to break past the private or charter schools,” said Verbanszky.

According to Verbanszky, the County stopped providing funding last year, which meant that the local schools that participated under its advisory–Campolindo, Acalanes, Las Lomas, Freedom, Pittsburg, Dublin, California and others–would no longer have a forum in which to compete. At the time Verbanszky was notified, he had already ordered and finance the team’s materials [curriculum packets] for the season.

Despite state-level efforts to help facilitate the team’s continuation, Verbanszky was understandably distressed that the program might have been forced to close its doors.

“We had senior students that wanted to have AcaDeca their senior year,” he said, adding that for long-term members like senior co-captains Ashley Zhang, Amanda Brown, and Athya Uthayakumar, the team had been both a home and a passion.

By way of what Verbanszky called “countless hours” of calling managers of counties outside of Contra Costa, Solano County folded Campolindo AcaDeca into the South Bay Regional competition, christening its new name the South-East Bay Regional Academic Decathlon. According to Verbanszky, the team currently competes under the category “freelance,” in San Jose, California.

“I understand it was a financial decision,” said Verbanszky. “When I began coaching we had 17 schools participate, now there were only 9. The fees charged to the remaining schools began to become insufficient to pay for the cost of running the program.”

“From my understanding [the defunding was driven by] the fact that there wasn’t enough participation,” agreed Brown. “I think the County just thought that we weren’t really participating in the numbers they wanted to see.”

Verbanszky noted that this poor financial situation was exacerbated by the fact that AcaDeca lacks the kind of funding “programs like Mock Trial recieve by way of being sponsored by private law firms and corporations.”

Alongside finances, Verbanszky also blamed the appeal of other academic clubs like Debate, Mock Trial, and Model United Nations (Model UN), which are in some cases less labor intensive and more verbally engaging. “I think Academic Decathlon is a relic of a different time—a slower time,” said Verbanszky. “Think of what audiences prefer. To watch students show off their random knowledge on a topic or to see junior lawyer battle wits in a courtroom?”

AcaDeca’s long track-record of achievement may, he believes, have also played a role. “Contra Costa County felt that since it is “Campo’s Show” at the regional level, other schools will not have a chance and when it came to defund a program to “go for new endeavors” Aca Deca was targeted versus Mock Trial,” said Verbanszky.

According to Verbanszky, the County’s defense was that Mock Trial gives more students a chance to win than does AcaDeca. With Verbanszky, this argument fell on deaf ears. “It seems to me that Miramonte is as powerful in Mock Trial as Campo is in AcaDeca,” he said.

“Why pick the only program that is nationally recognized to cut?” he asked, referencing the program’s inclusion in a 2013 U.S. Congressional Resolution. He proceeded to compare the County’s logic to the theoretical absurdity of the North Coast [Sports] Section (NCS) deducing from Campo football’s recent triumphs that the team “needs to give someone else a chance [to win].”

“Events are definitely going to be different,” said Zhang, of the program’s changes. “Usually we have this event called Super Quiz, and it’s really great because everyone’s cheering for you and it really helps lift the mood of the team, and we won’t have that. The County’s no longer hosting this program . . . so this big part of the community coming together [to watch AcaDeca] just won’t happen anymore.”

While little outside of physical competition logistics was altered due to the defunding, Verbanszky expressed that the change “greatly affected the inclusiveness of AcaDeca,” a fact the team co-captains and other members reiterated; whereas in past years the team could take 54 members to compete, this year that number was capped at 25.

“AcaDeca is not about the competition. That is just  a goal,” said Verbanszky. “It is [as much] about team-building and making friendships”; the County’s move this spring involuntary posed an obstacle to that message, forcing the team to make considerably more cuts than have been necessary in previous years.

“It really draws in people who want to learn for the sake of learning, rather than for the grade,” said Brown, of the importance of AcaDeca. “I think it [the diversity of member GPAs] really adds a nice layer and makes it satisfying for everyone who’s part of the club because it shows that you’re not really defined by your GPA and there’s all these different types of intelligences. . . . That’s very important to show, especially at Campolindo, like it’s a very competitive school and a lot of students are caught up in the idea that memorizing facts is intelligence.”

AcaDeca revolves around an overarching topic each season. This season’s–Africa–is one Verbanszky calls a rich abundance of history, art, culture, literature, and music. “Although difficult,” he said, “the students are enjoying learning about the continent.”

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