Alaskan expedition: THS Academic Decathlon team finishes 12th at nationals

Trumbull students can’t seem to stay out of the headlines.

A week after We the People took home an eighth-place finish at a national competition in Washington, D.C., the Trumbull High School Academic Decathlon team wrapped up its successful season with a trip to the National U.S. Academic Decathlon (USAD) competition, April 28-30, in Anchorage, Alaska.

Trumbull finished 12th in its division, behind perennial favorite and winner Granada Hills Charter of California, but with a school-record team score of 32,425 at the national competition.

The seven-member team, comprised of six sophomores and one junior, performed strongly on all 10 events, which were based on this year’s theme of India.

It was Trumbull’s first trip to nationals in four years since repeating as the Connecticut state champion in 2011 and 2012.

“It was amazing to make it back to nationals,” said adviser and coach Dean Pelligra, who works as a librarian at the high school. “That’s what it’s all about — making it there and competing with the smartest kids in the country and international teams from around the world. …

“It certainly was an eye-opener for the kids to see how much commitment it takes to get there,” he added. “This isn’t a class; this a club that’s independent of any school-related curriculum, and a lot of the time, they have to teach themselves the material.”

Pelligra and co-adviser Sara Ellis, a Trumbull high social studies teacher, traveled with the team across the country to Alaska after it had qualified by winning the Connecticut state title back on March 5.

Previous state champion teams from Trumbull had traveled to Albuquerque, N.M., and Charlotte, N.C.

This year’s trip was a bit more of an undertaking, and featured a layover in Chicago on the way there and a stop in Seattle on the way back.

“Getting there was a bit of a scramble, and we couldn’t have done it without the help of Trumbull BEI and the ACE Foundation, as well as the support from the Board of Education,” Pelligra said.

“It was a quick weekend in Anchorage,” he added. “We got in that night and competed Thursday and Friday and were on the plane Saturday afternoon. It was a long travel experience — about 11 to 12 hours each way.”

Student reflection

Despite being stuck indoors at the competition after the lengthy flight to Alaska, the Trumbull students walked away impressed and honored.

“My impression of my first USAD National event was that it was a wonderful competition to be a part of,” said Viraj Dongaonkar. “It allowed me to meet intellectuals from all over that I otherwise would not have been able to meet, and it was a great experience overall.”

Honors team member Lalith Gannavaram was presented with a medal and $250 scholarship as Trumbull’s highest scorer.

“I was very honored to be able to represent THS at the national level and enjoyed the competition thoroughly,” she said. “I got a good measure of how well other states prepare for this, and look forward to studying accordingly for next year.”

With 10 different topics about India to cover and learn, Pelligra said, each student carved out an area of expertise to teach their fellow teammates.

“Lalith was our music expert — she taught the whole group and really got us prepared for that subject,” he said.

In the scholastic and varsity divisions, team members Ishan Negi and Daejah Woolery achieved the highest scores, respectively. 

Team members Dongaonkar, Alexandra Dima, Saloni Shah, and Elisabeth Stankevitz rounded out the team, and all performed admirably. Dima was the club’s lone junior.

“It was an unforgettable experience, thanks to the new people I met and the things I did,” said Negi. “I can't wait to go to another one.”

International representation

This year’s competition was truly an international event, with 16 teams from the People’s Republic of China, two representatives from the United Kingdom, and a team from Canada joining the 30 state champions that made the trip to Alaska.

This was the 34th annual USAD event which originated locally and then expanded regionally in southern California in the 1960s. THS has competed in the Academic Decathlon since 2010.  

Western states still tend to rule the national competition, but Connecticut hopes to make inroads into that domination as the team matures, Pelligra said.

“None of our kids are seniors, so we’re prepared to go back next year and do it again,” he said.

“We didn’t expect to win states this year with a mostly sophomore team,” he added. “We thought we’d be mostly a rebuilding team this year, but we pulled off the upset in March and we couldn’t have been more proud when we did.”

Sitting at the awards ceremony at New Fairfield High School, the Trumbull High librarian realized this year’s club was something special.

“We knew with the victory we were going to nationals, but it was the sheer volume of medals that we won that really showed what the kids were capable of achieving,” he said.

“They put in about 10 hours a week throughout the year, but they really ramped things up for our two major competitions,” he said. “We set aside a room for them in the library, which is where we have our meetings after school, and I would see the kids come in throughout the day to study and to keep going over the material.”

Revolving door of subjects

The biggest difference between the United States Academic Decathlon and other educational competitions is the requirement that each team be comprised of members with varying scholastic achievement levels.

Consequently, three members must have a grade point average (GPA) of greater than 3.75, three members must possess a GPA below 3, and three fall somewhere in the middle.

This mandate allows for greater student diversity and a more realistic representation of a school’s overall student body.

Students participated in 10 events: art, economics, essay, interview, language and literature, math, music, social science, science, and speech.

“My favorite competition event was definitely the speech,” said Woolery. “I have always loved public speaking, and the opportunity to talk about anything I wanted was amazing.”

Next year’s theme is World War II, and preparations for the upcoming season have begun.

“They tend to pick subjects that are based in a historical era or an epic text,” Pelligra explained. “One year it was World War I; another year it was Russia. Last year, the kids took on learning about renewable energy.

“The competition committee likes to mix it up a bit, but I’m sure our kids will be up to the challenge next year,” he said.