Western Center Academy advances to national competition

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Western Center Academy’s Academic Decathlon team is competing at the virtual Nationals through April 30. The photo collage was created from the student’s individual photos by the school. Valley News/Courtesy photo

Hemet’s Western Center Academy is the only Riverside County school to advance to the Academic Decathlon national competition this year. The charter school’s 2-year-old team was formed by coaches Rex McDonald and Keith Rossi.

“We thought there would be a lot of student interest, we thought they would enjoy it and we thought we could put together a competitive team,” McDonald said.

He explained that the Academic Decathlon is a rigorous individual and team competition that pits students against one another from other schools in the county, state and the country. There are 10 individual events in essay, speech, interview and objective tests in art, economics, literature, mathematics, music, science and social science and a Super Quiz, which is a collaborative event. Each team of six to nine decathletes must have students from a range of GPAs. Students can medal in the 10 individual events and their overall individual points contribute to the overall team score. All the schools compete against one another at the same time.

Western Center Academy has students from throughout the Inland Empire and the team consists of students from Hemet, San Jacinto, Idyllwild and Temecula. Decathletes Byron Gonzalez and Ayden Reams are the only two who competed last year. Their teammates are Aubriana Bernhardt, Jayson Bunnell, Sophie Carver, Fatima Muhammad and Ahnika Pena. All but Pena are seniors.

Gonzalez said he felt having competed before gave him a definite advantage.

“Knowing how to study and playing the game was perfect for my success this year. I see it as a video game for any standardized testing; once you get the routine there’s no stopping you,” he said. “It requires commitment and comradery to make a team.”

The COVID-19 pandemic began part way through last year’s competition but affected the entire year of practice for this year’s event, with all levels of competition held virtually.

“One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is staying motivated to study not only the topics that I enjoy from this year but also the ones that I don’t enjoy as much,” Pena said. “Music has been the biggest struggle for me, as learning something as complex as music theory while also trying to memorize other topics isn’t easy. One thing I’ve found that helped was having teammates who are well versed in music, like my teammates Jayson and Ayden who each play several instruments.”

Pena’s favorite part of the competition is Super Quiz because of the teamwork aspect of it. Although it’s different from a normal year, she said it’s nice to get a full review and collaborate with her teammates more than she would on the individual tests or the performance tasks.

McDonald said the virtual competition causes the students to miss out on some of the most exciting aspects of the competition, which include doing the speeches and interviews live, the Super Quiz competition and the excitement of seeing all of the competitors from other schools.

“The biggest benefit was that in a year where social lives have sort of been put on hold, our online meetings were one of the few opportunities these kids had for a social outlet,” he said.

Bernhardt thought utilizing an online format made it easier for the team to meet, especially on weekends and after school because they didn’t need to arrange rides to and from school.

“We also got to compete from locations where we were comfortable, which I think helped,” she said.

This year’s theme is The Cold War. Competitions at each level were held Jan. 30 and Feb. 6 for county, March 16-20 for state and throughout April for the 10 parts of the national competition. The final objective tests and the Super Quiz are Friday, April 30.

“The information about The Cold War is given to us through resource guides, separated into seven different topics,” Pena said. “These are studied weekly, with 7-10 hours being put in on school time and then additional time put in on our own, for me about four extra hours a week depending on how much work I have for other classes, or more when the competition gets closer.”

Her study methods were very focused on highlighting important information while reading through the resource guide and then using color coding to designate different types of information throughout the guide. She also enjoyed doing practice quizzes and using flashcard sets when it got closer to competition times as a faster review.

Bunnell said he’s enjoyed researching The Cold War and tracing all the different events back to their very beginning. Gonzalez said each level increased in difficulty and time commitment and as they progressed, everyone had to study harder to meet their goals.

“I read and read like there was no tomorrow,” he said. “That is the trick – just rereading when you are bored, have nothing to do, or for fun.”

McDonald said the county champions automatically advanced to the state level, which was Lake Elsinore this year. After that, the state invites a certain number of teams based on overall points. The State Champion and a Division IV Champion advance to the National Competition.

“I don’t know how many schools we will be competing against since there will be schools from China competing too,” McDonald said. “We were the third highest Division IV qualifier based on our state scores.”

He said that the decathletes have been preparing much the same as they have been doing since January which includes reviewing for the seven-subject area tests and practicing the performance events of essay, speech and interview.

“Interviews are usually my favorite since I can spill all my life in a couple of minutes,” Gonzalez said.

McDonald said his role as coach is to mainly keep the students motivated and engaged, trying to mix things up so they aren’t doing the same thing day after day. He said it has been a schoolwide effort as WCA teachers that are experts in their subject areas have worked with the students. He said what he looks forward to the most is seeing the students’ excitement, nervousness and sense of pride in all their success.

“The best part of the competition has definitely been my teammates. I know it’s cheesy, but it’s true,” Carver said. “Having my senior year be completely online has been lonely and disappointing but being able to (virtually) see my teammates every day, have them become really close friends of mine, and learn alongside them has made this year bearable. I’ve also enjoyed learning things I wouldn’t normally learn in school, like interviews and impromptu speeches. I really feel like this practice has prepared me for the real world and made life after high school seem a little less scary.”