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US Academic Decathlon: National Competition Winners

Dr. Pam Lloyd, Chief Strategy Officer, K20Connect


Picture the exhilaration and inspiration I experienced, immersed in the company of over 700 high school students nationwide.  These weren't just your average high school students; they were the crème de la crème, the champion decathletes who had earned their spots to compete at the prestigious United States Academic Decathlon national championship in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from April 24-27. As I meandered through the bustling corridors of the Westin Hotel and the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, I was enveloped in their vibrant energy, listening to their animated conversations about their schools and homes.  


Every student had a burning desire to emerge victorious in the United States Academic Decathlon (USAD) national competition and secure the coveted title for their school division. The competition was fierce, with most students battling it out as a team, while a few chose to go solo, showcasing their brilliance. 


When I listen to these decathlete students and their coaches' stories, I am continually reminded of the resilience and courage these students and their coaches demonstrate. The USAD board of directors and the many hands of the USAD State Directors eagerly welcome these hard-working students who have earned their state title to compete at the national USAD premier educational event. 


The United States Academic Decathlon (USAD) was the brainchild of Dr. Robert Petersen, a visionary school superintendent from California.  He firmly believed that competition in learning was the key to unlocking students' potential, fostering maturity, and enabling self-fulfillment. What started as a humble tournament in his school district in 1968 has now blossomed into a nationwide and international phenomenon, with the first national championship in 1982. 


Today, the USAD has grown nationwide as well as internationally.  The core elements of the first Academic Decathlon are still in effect today.  Dr. Peterson required each team to include not just students with the highest grade point average (GPA) – “A,” or Honor students, but also those students with a “B” GPA or Scholastic students and “C” GPA or Varsity students.   Each team consists of nine full-time students from the ninth through twelfth grades of the same high school.   Each team comprises three Honor students, three Scholastic students, and three Varsity students. The team approach was intentional in fostering collaboration and learning from each other. This emphasis on teamwork and collaboration creates a strong bond, and many of these students continue to be a part of USAD as judges and volunteers. Some become teachers, coaches, and state directors, a testament to the profound impact of the USAD competition on their personal and professional development.


The heart of this year’s competition was based on the USAD-themed curriculum topic, “Technology & Humanity.” This comprehensive interdisciplinary curriculum spans various disciplines, including Art, Music, Social Science, Science, Mathematics, Economics, and essay writing. The curriculum uses Common Core Standards for high school mathematics and reading and the national content standards for the remaining subjects.  Each student tested in these subjects as an individual and as a team. In addition, each student delivered a speech on a topic of their choice and an impromptu speech in front of three judges.  They wrote essays demonstrating their learning to argue an idea powerfully.  They were interviewed by three judges, asking them about their experience and their goals for the future.   While many attributes of being a great decathlete require dedication, determination, and focus, these students' greatest attributes are communicating, having compassion for one another, and working together for a common goal.


The USAD National Competition is the culmination of a year’s worth of work by each student to commit to learning the themed curriculum.  ith their coach, they spend hours working together to become state champions and then on to nationals to earn the right to be called “national champions.”  Some school districts create a class for the USAD curriculum and teams, while others provide the opportunity for their students through an extra-curricular activity.  Regardless, these students and coaches deserve recognition for making it to the national stage.


Like sports teams, the USAD has created divisions depending on school size.  The 2024 Nationals competition winners by division included:

Division 1: Overall National Champions:  El Camino Real Charter High School, CA

Division III:  Oakwood High School, OH

Division V:  Hallmark Academy, CA


All the students who make it to the national competition are champions. They have earned their titles. I am incredibly proud of my hometown Division II first-place winner, Lathrop High School, in Fairbanks, Alaska.   


While USAD began as a high-school team program, today, it has expanded to include Pentathlon, a five-event scholastic competition for middle school students. It provides the same benefits as the Academic Decathlon with team and individual competition. The USAD also created a separate competition for students in non-traditional school settings with the same thematic curriculum and ability for students to compete individually. But we didn’t stop there; the USAD created an International Competition and invited students worldwide to participate.


I have the privilege of serving as the vice chair of the USAD board of directors. Our mission is to promote learning and academic excellence among students of varying achievement levels by developing and providing multidisciplinary academic competitions using the Academic Decathlon curricula. I have been involved with USAD for almost two decades, and each year, I see hope for our future.  I began my journey in Alaska, serving as President of the Alaska Academic Decathlon.  I have witnessed first-hand the difference this program has made for students across the globe.  Our former decathletes become teachers, coaches, and state directors to continue promoting learning and academic excellence among students of varying achievement levels by developing and providing multidisciplinary academic competitions using Academic Decathlon curricula.


An event like this doesn’t happen without parents, coaches, state directors, USAD staff, volunteers, and sponsors who show up for testing, essays, speeches, interviews, and proctors. USAD brings people together for the common goal of helping our students become the best versions of themselves. Thank you all for making this event the highlight of my year! 


If you are interested in participating in the 2024-2025 school year, there are many opportunities to get involved! You can,

·         Start a Team

·         Become a Sponsor

·         Volunteer

·         Donate  

 

The curriculum theme for next year’s competition is “Our Changing Climate.” The National competition will be held in Des Moines, IA, May 1-3, 2025. I hope to see you there!

 

Dr. Pam Lloyd (pam@k20connect.net) is the Chief Strategy Officer for K20Connect, working to connect industry and education to provide the best outcomes for students. K20Connect is a women-owned business focused on business development, strategic planning, policy tracking, professional development, and marketing development. 

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