For the fourth year in a row, members of Lodi High School's Academic Decathlon team took first place in the countywide competition and will move to the state contest in March. The county competition was held over the weekend in Stockton and included 18 teams representing 15 schools.
The winning "red" team members were Preston Graham, Joe Benapfl, Ava Dornbush, Jacob Lane, Steven Sierra, Beau Benko, Derek Schatz, Scott Miller and Elsie Robinson.
After five years as the team's coach, English teacher Jeff Palmquist revealed the team's secrets to success in a phone interview with education reporter Jennifer Bonnett.
Q: Tell me a bit about the Academic Decathlon.
A: It's a two-weekend competition. Obviously, there are 10 categories. On the first weekend they do a speech, interview and an essay, and the other seven categories the following weekend. It culminates in the super quiz.
Basically, students are taking tests all day. There are 10 members, and three of them have to be below a 3.0 grade-point average.
Q: Is it only the smart kids who compete?
A: I'd usually say, "Yes," but I'd like to put an asterisk on that. You have to be diligent and willing to study.
I have cheerleaders, water polo players, the athlete of the week. At our school, the team is usually pretty well-rounded. We pretty much take everybody and find a way to make them work on our team.
There are honors, scholastic and varsity (levels) based on their GPAs. You take two kids out of each category, and that makes up your team (plus alternates).
Q: I understand this year's competition was focused on the French Revolution. How are the topics chosen?
A: The national organization puts out the topic and the study guide. I don't know what their process is. … The year before that was the Civil War.
Kids have to do art, science, language, literature, all of those things related to the French Revolution, so they have to be pretty well-rounded in their knowledge.
Q: When does studying for the big event begin?
A: Because it's my sixth-period class, we start in the summertime when students read the novel. Then we jump right in when the school year starts, and we have the curriculum and study guide.
Q: How many hours do you estimate team members put in per week?
A: It's really hard to say. … Some kids have put in hours and hours, and I couldn't even begin to estimate how many.
San Joaquin County Academic Decathlon by the numbers— 4th year in a row Lodi High School took first place.
— 5th year it was coached by English teacher Jeff Palmquist.
— 15 schools were represented at Saturday's event.
— 18 teams competed.
— 400 estimated high school students participated.
— 1981: The first year the county office of education hosted it.
Q: What role do you play?
A: I'm coach/teacher. My main job is to put the teams together, evaluate where I think kids will perform, motivate them, keep them focused and maintain goals so we can get the most points.
Q: The school's team continues to clench the decathlon's top spot. What's your secret?
A: Our approach is, we're a team, not a class. I think of this as a (sports) team … I'm not trying to teach them all the material; I'm trying to coach them to do their best.
It was the first year bigger schools were allowed two teams, and I think that was a big part of our success this year. It's also important to note that we had a lot of sophomores and juniors on our team this year, so it means some of the best kids in the county may return next year.
Q: As the coach, what was the most exciting part of Saturday's competition?
A: Obviously, winning again. When they announce who the winner is, that's what we're there for. Also when they announce how each student did. That's exciting.