ATLANTA — After a year of hard work, with many hours of studying, the academic decathlon team at Westover Comprehensive High School put that work to good use with a third-place finish at recent state competition in Atlanta.
“I want all my students to realize that when we compete with North Georgia students who have more resources than we have, and our students were still able to compete and bring home a trophy, medals — gold, silver and bronze medals — we have so much to be proud about,” Pamela Heard, a Westover teacher and coach of the decathlon team, said. “It makes it even more significant that we have fewer resources in that regard, but we still brought home medals. Students are really proud of themselves.”
The Westover team won the Dougherty County School System’s district decathlon on Jan. 10 to advance to state competition.
Both the district competition and the state competition over the weekend are part of the Georgia Academic Decathlon, a program run by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators (PAGE).
The competition “focuses on the importance of developing well-rounded individuals and provides an antidote to intellectual apathy and underachievement,” according to the PAGE website.
Each year, the competition has a theme, and students study art, music, literature, science, economics and other curriculum relating to the theme. This year officials chose the decade of the 1960s.
Nine students competed at the state competition, taking content tests in 10 different areas, writing an essay and giving a speech.
The competing students were divided into three different categories: honors, scholastic and varsity, based on their grades, with the Honors group having the highest grades.
The PAGE website also said the competition “provides incentive for average students, underachieving students, above-average students as well as academically talented students, to become interested in intellectual activities.”
In addition to the third-place ranking for the overall Westover team, several individual students placed in subject areas in their individual categories.
Chantel Mackey competed in the scholastic division and won a silver medal in economics, social science and art, as well as a bronze medal in science and literature. Mackey received bronze for placing third-highest overall in her division.
Denzel Cunningham competed in the honors division and won a gold medal in science, music and economics, as well as a bronze medal in social science. Cunningham was recently named Westover’s and Dougherty County’s STAR Student.
Emmanuel Bassy won a silver medal in art in the scholastic category. Henry Plowden and Naamah Gray both competed in the varsity category, with Plowden winning a silver medal in music and Gray winning a bronze medal in math.
Heard coaches the team, along with Thomas Amos, another teacher at Westover, and she said that the students have been working nearly the whole school year studying the material. Cunningham selected Amos as his STAR Teacher.
Heard said that in the beginning of the school year, the coaches and team met three times a week or so, but closer to the competition, they meet every day, both in the mornings before the school day officially started and in the afternoons until around 6 o’clock.
“These students have regular schoolwork and some of them are taking college courses, but they make time (for this),” Heard said. “They manage their time so well that they can include studying for 10 subject areas for academic decathlon.”
Heard said that many of the students are involved in academics and other extracurricular activities as well.
“They’re well-rounded in other social activities, in church and in the community,” she said. “Some are athletes as well, and for them to make this additional commitment, to be dedicated to something academic, it’s just wonderful. It motivates you to want to work with them.”
And while Heard and Amos do work with the students, Heard said that the students came up with their own study plan this year and implemented it.
“They took it upon themselves to organize everything as far as how they wanted to study,” Heard said. “They had a system they created themselves that they wanted to use. Many of the students competed last year, so they were able to mentor the new students this year. That was just great seeing how we got it and how we supported it as coaches but gave them room to do what they needed to do, to take charge and lead.”
Heard said working with such motivated students is very encouraging as an educator.
“It gives you a whole new level of energy,” she said. “Even though you may be tired at the end of the day, when you see them come in, and they’re all eager to get started, it recharges your battery. … When (other) students see you have a team of students coming after school to study a 4-inch binder of material, it subconsciously influences them as well.
“It’s been a great experience. It’s been a great year, and we’re just happy to bring home that trophy and all those medals and look forward to doing it next year as well.”