In Room 44 at Duncan Polytechnical High School, English teacher Carina Chase listens as high school junior Kajlug Lee rehearses a speech.
A whiteboard a few steps away reads: “Meeting every day this week.”
In the classroom of scattered desks that’s nearly empty of students, Lee is one of seven members of Chase’s newly formed team that trains after school for the upcoming Fresno County Academic Decathlon competition. A speech competition is scheduled for Saturday; other competitions and the Super Quiz will be held on Feb. 4. Typically, a competing team has nine students.
It was not easy forming the team at a school that hasn’t had a team since 2004. (Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly reported that Duncan was fielding a team for the first time ever, based on incorrect information from the the Office of the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools.) Chase said she almost went door to door at the east-central Fresno school asking for interested students, but morning announcements were made and fellow English teachers sent students her way.
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“It was a really rough start, so I’m really looking forward to next year,” Chase said. She plans to make the Academic Decathlon team a class next year so students can get credit for their hard work.
Lee, like two other students who showed up to practice Monday, is a busy student. She is the president of the school’s Asian club and a member of the ski and snowboarding club. She is also a student in the school’s medical academic pathway – she wore her purple-colored scrubs to decathlon practice because she had spent the day job-shadowing at a senior living center.
Lee decided to add another activity to her busy schedule this spring, even after not being able to join the team when it started last semester.
Whatever score they get, I’m going to be so immensely proud of them. They’ve just done so much work.
Carina Chase, coach of Duncan Polytechnical’s Academic Decathlon team
When Chase recruited the students, she admits she didn’t tell them the real amount of work they would have to take on.
“I showed them one version of the binder, and I said, ‘But there is actually more,’ ” Chase said, drawing chuckles from her students as they remembered the moment.
Lee, signaling with her fingers to show how small her school binder was before it ballooned into the thicker version that includes the decathlon curriculum, said, “I was like, ‘Oh shoot, I got myself in a mess.’ ”
Chase understands the amount of energy it takes for her students because she also competed in Academic Decathlon when she went to Hallmark Charter School in Sanger. She said it taught her life skills that she carried with her into her job as a teacher, like writing, speech and interviewing.
She was a member of her school’s team for three years. The Division I team always made it to the state competition in the medium school category, she said, placing third each time. Above her desk on a wall, several medals hang as a reminder of the work she did and as inspiration for what she is now doing with her students.
But being the coach is different, the young teacher said. For example, Chase will sit with other teachers who once judged her.
“It’s so weird sitting next to them at the coach table,” Chase said. “They listened to me. I gave them my speech in high school.”
With the competition approaching, Lee says she has grown. She just needs to make sure her speech meets the time limit set by judges. Her speech is about a friend who committed suicide. Chase said students could choose their own topics for the speeches.
Sophomore Chris Gash is a member of Duncan’s ROTC program. Because the topic of this year’s competition is World War II and the ROTC program also taught students about the subject, Gash said his friends encouraged him to join the decathlon team.
He practiced his speech in front of his teammates and said he is only feeling “a little pressure” for the competition.
Junior Jesus Castillo joined the team after a friend told him it was a good activity to get involved in if he planned to go to college. He is also in the ROTC program and the medical academic pathway.
Chase knows her new team likely will not outperform winning teams like those from University or Edison high schools, against whom she competed as a high schooler.
“I’m just going in with a really open and unassuming mentality,” she said. “I expect so much from these students, but at the same time, I am not really expecting the same level as University or Edison.” Both schools are perennial favorites in Fresno County’s Academic Decathlon, and University has won the small schools national championship for the past 10 years.
Chase said her students may not be at the same level as other competitors – yet – but she wants them to gain experience and hopes any returning students can inspire new ones to join next year and create a stronger team.
“Whatever score they get, I’m going to be so immensely proud of them,” Chase said. “They’ve just done so much work.”
Chase is following a tradition her high school academic decathlon teacher had of dressing the students with clothing that matches the theme of the competition. This year, the girls will wear green scarves atop their blazers. The boys will wear ties that depict a map of France on D-Day.
The students said they are thankful for the work Chase does. Plus, Castillo said, his coach is “the youngest and coolest teacher on campus.”
Key dates for Academic Decathlon
Jan. 28 and Feb. 4 county competitions (Fresno County Super Quiz, 3:30 p.m. Feb. 4, Central East High School gym)
March 23-26: California Decathlon, Sacramento
April 20-22: Madison, Wis.