A close-knit crew of Rutherford High School students is gearing up for state-level competition in hard-core academics: a full range of subjects, reliance on team performance, high-pressure speeches and “cram sessions.” With past Academic Decathlon wins a decade ago, this could be their year to bring back the title.
Having placed 2nd in regional competition Feb.1 in North Bergen, where Rutherford students took home 77 individual awards, the team is in an all-out academic sprint toward the state event Feb. 29 at Westwood Regional High School.
“This team in particular is comprised of some very close friends,” said teacher and coach Jason Narozny, who has a 21-year history of guiding the Decathlon participants. “They motivate each other to study, to outline, and to take practice tests more than I’ve seen in at least 10 years.”
Academic Decathlon is loosely patterned after the physical demands of the athletic version that requires prowess in 10 track and field events. But the brawn in this competition comes from brains, as students are expected to outscore peers in science, literature, art, music, social science, economics and math. In addition to the breadth of those seven subjects, they are tested through an interview, an essay, and a speech. All of that is framed within a theme; this year’s is “Illness and Wellness.”
“While all of the students took Biology as a standard high school course, the Decathlon’s science segment focuses on cancer and covers the subject much more deeply than the usual curriculum,” Narozny said.
He has taught in Rutherford for 22 years and currently manages courses in sophomore English, Advanced Placement Literature and Sci-Fi & Fantasy Literature. His background also includes music, which is helpful because some of the Decathlon students have never played an instrument. He calls on other teachers – and even student “experts” – to cover subjects that aren’t in his skill set.
Up to 18 students can join the team, but there’s a catch. Decathlon rules require that the team be evenly comprised of students with various grade point averages; no teams are stocked with all-A students. Everyone competes equally, and individual scores are blended to make the team score.
Studying starts in May and students spend the summer reviewing study guides and writing speeches. In August, they regroup for three full days affectionately called “geek week.” Once their regular high school classes resume, Decathlon becomes a twice-a-week afterschool club focused on academics.
“Many students are eager to learn, to do the deep dives necessary for Decathlon,” Narozny said. “This process puts learning on their own terms and satisfies their competitive nature even if the athletic arena doesn’t.”
Narozny coached the 2009 and 2010 Rutherford teams that won state championships, and he has high hopes that this year’s group will do well. Several students are strong leaders, and everyone has a helpful, team-oriented attitude.
“This team often runs itself, which is something most coaches only dream of,” he said. “The students decide what needs to be reviewed, who should teach the material, and how to reinforce it.”
When the team shows up for the state competition, they’ll be prepared for a sometimes tense, always demanding day that alternates between cram sessions and test-taking. Scoring won’t be complete until March 4, but they will follow the Rutherford tradition that includes a celebratory dinner that rehashes the good, the bad and the humorous moments of Decathlon.