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End of road for Academic Decathlon?


Daily News Staff Writer

The Ketchikan High School Academic Decathlon team’s 21-year stint as one of the school’s extracurricular activities is likely to end this school year.

Coach Sean Powell, decathlon coach since 1999, said that many changes in the program, funding and students’ schedules have led to the team’s demise.

He will step down as coach at the end of this school year, as he does not foresee a way to keep the team viable. He said he needs a break from all of the years of leading the Kayhi team.

One setback was when a previous state director of Alaska Academic Decathlon administrators decided to sever its affiliation with the Alaska School Activities Association several years ago. He said that the director made that decision with the idea that Alaska decathlon would be better off with the ability to make independent decisions.

"He was incredibly wrong," Powell said.

Powell said that one of the most destructive problems that the change caused was conflicting state competition scheduling with Drama, Debate and Forensics meets. When both debate and decathlon were ASAA members, rules dictated that meets would be separated by at least a week.

Debate teams often attract the same group of students, and Powell said that in three years of the past five, state debate coordinators set their state competitions on the same weekend as decathlon’s state meets.

Another change that the state decathlon organization made was dropping Craig’s decathlon team to the small schools rather than large schools division. He said Craig and Metlakatla both offer decathlon as classes, and now dominate the small schools division.

"It changed the whole playing field," he said, causing some other small schools to drop out of decathlon competitions.

This year, Powell said he has about four decathletes in his Kayhi group. The past two years, about 10 filled out competition rosters.

One challenge the Kayhi decathlon team always has faced, alongside Juneau, is that its members do not prepare for meets in classes for credit, as do other Southeast Alaska students. That makes it difficult to keep the team roster full, because decathlon clashed with many other extracurricular activities.

Students at Kayhi, who can take debate as a class, have chosen, increasingly, to compete in debate instead of decathlon when forced to choose.

Powell said that with budget tightening and so many competing subjects at Kayhi needing teachers and time slots, he does not think it likely that decathlon would become a class, as debate has.

Kayhi students gather after school to study for meets in which competitors take tests, participate in mock job interviews, make speeches and write essays.

Attracting students to a team that focuses on studying subjects from mathematics to world history to prepare for the test portions of the competitions already is difficult, without the extra challenges, Powell said.

"There are not that many people who fit that criteria," he said.

As for most school activities, Powell said fundraising also has become more difficult over the years.

"These kids are drawn out really thin," he said.

He said he has been proud of how well the Kayhi students have done at meets regardless of the obstacles.

"Our kids are different kids," he said. "Everything they’ve done, they’ve done for themselves."

State Academic Decathlon Director Curtiss Clifton said the Kayhi decathlon team always has been a tough competitor.

He emphasized that decathlon is extraordinarily valuable not only for the academic challenge, but for the many scholarships offered for competitors, who are not only top students, but students from all GPA levels as well.

Preparing for Academic Decathlon meets starts in May, Powell said, and participants are expected to study continues the summer and into the school year. Students read a classic novel and each receive a thick binder full of the curriculum addressing all of the subjects.

Another aspect of decathlon that will make studying for it more difficult, Powell said, is that the national organization is beginning to supply digital-only curriculum rather than the print binder.

"Imagine reading the history of Russia on your phone," Powell said, explaining that some of the students wouldn’t have full-sized computer monitors at home.

He said that the use of Skype, a video-conferencing computer program, for interviews and speeches is under consideration as well. The use of Skype isn’t practical for Southeast Alaska, he said, because it often does not run smoothly. He said watching a live speech is completely different than watching one on a video.

"You can’t get something out of those speeches unless you’re in the room with them," he said.

Powell said a positive side he sees to no longer serving as decathlon coach is that he will have more after-school time to assist his chemistry students who are looking for extra help.

He added that another positive will be that he will have more time to relax and spend with his family.

"To be honest, I’m tired," he said.

The fundraising, especially, has gotten tiresome.

"I’ve sold enough pizzas to go around the world once," he said, laughing. "Begging from the community is getting old."

He said there was a possibility the team could go on if a new coach was found that would work through the challenges that have stacked up over the past several years, and added that Kayhi Principal Sam Nelson has expressed his commitment to the program.

So far, no one has stepped forward, however.

Powell said he has been impressed by the students who have come through the program over the years.

"Those are some of the best people I’ve known," he said.