Catholic students’ joy of learning takes center stage


‘KNOWLEDGE BOWL’: Academic Junior High Decathlon teams, like this one from St. Columba School, ran past sparkler and fog machines into the St. Augustine High School gym March 2 for the closing of this year’s diocesan-level event. A record 34 teams participated in this year’s decathlon, with a total of 308 students, a 55% percent increase from last year. (Credit: David Maung)

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SAN DIEGO — Deafening cheers reverberated through the gym at St. Augustine High School shortly after noon on a recent Saturday. In the stands, some fans held signs and waved pom-poms to cheer on their favorite team.

Though it had the feel of one, this was no sporting event.

It was the 2024 Academic Junior High Decathlon, a “knowledge bowl” competition for Catholic school students in the sixth through eighth grades.

The event on March 2, which had begun with registration at 7:30 a.m., was entering its home stretch. Only the Super Quiz, the final contest of the day and the only one open to the public, remained before the awards ceremony that would reveal who would advance to the national-level competition.

Rachel Miller, who has coached St. Didacus School’s decathlon team for 12 years, reflected on why she loves it.

“It’s a basketball gym full of people cheering for kids who are getting social studies, and science, and math questions right. … This is the only time (when) academics is a team sport,” she said.

St. Didacus School was one of 34 teams that competed in this year’s decathlon – an almost 55% increase from the 22 teams that participated last year.

Elizabeth Kramer is associate superintendent of the Diocese of San Diego’s Catholic schools and one of three regional coordinators for the local diocesan decathlon. She said that the 2024 event was “the largest … that we’ve ever had.”

Some 308 students participated, up from 220 the previous year.

Established in 1989 in Los Angeles, Academic Junior High Decathlon came to San Diego in 1997 and has been a tradition ever since.

The decathlon consists of 10 events.

First is the Logic Quiz, a team event in which participants have one hour to solve 20 problems that involve visual/spatial, verbal and mathematical reasoning, as well as formal logic.

There are also eight individual subject tests for which one member of each participating team takes an hourlong multiple-choice test. The tested subjects include Current Events, English, Fine Arts, Literature, Math, Religion, Science and Social Studies.

Finally, there is the Super Quiz, another team event and the only part of the competition that takes place before an audience. It consists of 50 multiple-choice questions about Fine Arts, Literature, Religion, Science and Social Studies.

First through sixth place are awarded in each competition, as well as overall.

Just before the awards ceremony, the lights in the gym were turned off. Each team was called into the gym by name. A spotlight followed them as they walked or jogged to their tables, a sparkler machine and fog machine making their entrance even more dramatic.

The team from St. Didacus entered this year’s competition with an impressive record, having twice taken first-place overall in the diocesan-level competition (2011 and 2013) and having consistently placed in the top six. They were fourth-place overall last year and had good reason to hope that their intense preparation for this year’s decathlon would be rewarded.

By the conclusion of this year’s awards ceremony, St. Didacus School had been named second-place overall, bested only by Stella Maris Academy. The school also took third place in the Logic Quiz.

“I couldn’t be prouder of them,” Miller said. “They did everything that they possibly could have done.”

St. Didacus School also received three awards in the individual subject tests, with eighth-grader Aja Prince winning first place in Current Events, seventh-grader Mirrin Bush taking first in Fine Arts, and eighth-grader Monica Huynh receiving third place in Math.

“It was a bit stressful and nerve-wracking, but it was also really exciting,” Prince said of the decathlon.

Bush, who hopes to participate again next year, echoed those sentiments.

“I think it turned out how we wanted,” said Bush, whose younger sister Minka was also a member of the decathlon team.

She added that perhaps by trying “a little bit more,” the team can do even better next year.

Both Prince and Bush went on to compete in the national competition, which was held virtually March 15 and pitted the winners of the San Diego Diocese’s decathlon against their counterparts from 18 other dioceses.

Bush also took first place in Fine Arts at the national level.

The St. Didacus team’s performance represented months of studying and practicing.

“Decathlon isn’t necessarily about being the smartest kid in the school,” said Miller. “It’s about being the hardest worker.”

Miller leads a Logic Club that begins meeting in late September, so that students can start familiarizing themselves with the types of problems that they will encounter in the decathlon’s Logic Quiz.

Those Friday afternoon sessions continued this year until March 1, the day before the event.

In October, when the national Academic Junior High Decathlon organization released its topics and study packets, Miller said, she gave the students about a week to review the material and choose the subject that they wanted to study. Then, they were divided into teams.

Right before Thanksgiving break, the students took multiple-choice tests modeled after the real decathlon tests. Based on their scores, Miller chose her 10 team members and five alternates.

In January and February, in addition to the Friday logic practices, Miller also held Saturday morning practices. She would be at school from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and team members and alternates were expected to come in for a minimum of two hours during that time – one hour to practice for their individual subject test and another to practice the two to three Super Quiz topics that they were assigned.

And that’s not even counting the hours that each team member spent in independent study.

Miller estimated that, between September and December, decathletes might be spending one to two hours a week studying. In January and February, she said, that might increase to as much as five to eight hours a week.

Mary Ellen Prince, Aja’s mother, offered a parent’s perspective on the decathletes’ commitment.

“Their dedication is crazy, and I couldn’t have done it,” she said. “So, I’m just so amazed by it.”

Tai and Mintra Bush also expressed pride in their daughter Mirrin’s first-place win and the effort that made it possible.

“I am so proud of my daughter. She studies so hard,” Tai said.

Mintra took a hands-on role in her daughters’ competition. She said she attended decathlon sessions and produced some practice quizzes.

As a participant in the individual subject test in Fine Arts, Mirrin was required to read Isabel Kuhl’s book “50 Buildings You Should Know” and to have encyclopedic knowledge of its contents. Mintra read it, too, so that she could more effectively quiz her daughter on it.

Naysayers might wonder why kids would voluntarily sign up for extra studying and testing. After all, don’t they have enough homework?

But ask the decathletes themselves, and they’ll explain.

Among other things, there’s fellowship with classmates and the thrill of competition.

Eighth-graders James Botz and Joe Quinn felt that their hard work was worth it, and for reasons other than medals. Botz believes that he has better critical thinking skills, a larger vocabulary, and higher grades thanks to his participation; Quinn thinks it “put me ahead for high school.”

Monica Huynh, who received third place this year in the individual subject test on Math, agrees.

“It gives you a habit to study more,” she said. “Basically, when you go up to high school, you’re already going to have a habit of studying a lot.”

What are the St. Didacus School team’s aspirations for next year?

“First place,” a beaming Miller replied after this year’s event. “That’s where we’re headed is first. We can’t go anywhere else, but first.”

2024 Academic Decathlon
Stella Maris Academy in La Jolla won first-place overall at the 2024 Academic Junior High Decathlon on March 2, earning the right to represent the Diocese of San Diego at the national-level competition.

Rounding out the top six were: St. Didacus School; St. Patrick School, Carlsbad; one of two competing teams from Our Lady of Guadalupe Academy, Calexico; St. Francis of Assisi School, Vista; and Good Shepherd School, which was last year’s first-place winner.

Stella Maris Academy also took first place in this year’s Logic Quiz and Super Quiz.

The following were the first-place winners in the eight individual subject tests.

– Current Events: Aja Prince, St. Didacus School
– Fine Arts: Mirrin Bush, St. Didacus School
– Math: Catherine Soriaga, Stella Maris Academy
– Science: Carter Thomas, St. Patrick School, Carlsbad
– English: Natalia Martin, Mater Dei Catholic Elementary School (Blue Team)
– Literature: Eva-Arabella Tehrani, Mater Dei Catholic Elementary School (Gold Team)
– Religion: Gabriella Horejs, Good Shepherd School
– Social Studies: Kimathi Schmid, Stella Maris Academy

They, too, went on to compete in the national-level competition, which was held virtually on March 15. Winners there included the following:

-Fine Arts: first place, Mirrin Bush
-English: second place, Natalia Martin
-Social Studies: first place, Kimathi Schmid

St. Joseph Academy, located in San Marcos, was also among the national winners. Not a diocesan school, it competed among other independent Catholic schools to secure its spot at the national-level competition, where its Gold Team was named the second-place team overall, won first place in Super Quiz, and had one of its students, Reuben Regev, take third place in the individual subject test in Science.

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