116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
This marks the 22nd consecutive year that a team of Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School students have taken top honors in the Iowa Academic Decathlon.
The J-Hawks have won the state competition for 25 of the past 26 years and gone on to do well in national competition, once coming in as national runner-up.
The teams that win the state academic decathlon — there are small and large school divisions — typically travel to a U.S. city to compete against other state champs in the National Academic Decathlon. But this year, the April 21-23 competition will be held virtually, as it was last year.
In academic decathlons — which started in California in 1968 and in Iowa in 1986 — students are tested in 10 academic areas: art, economics, essay, interviewing, language and literature, mathematics, social science, science, speech and super quiz.
“The key to Academic Decathlon is being even across the board,” according to Mark Fisher, a Jefferson team member in 2004. “We want to be equal on all different areas.”
Preparing for competition takes hours upon hours of study and practice. Students on the teams have A, B and C grade averages.
In 2025, the National Academic Decathlon will be held in Des Moines.
In Iowa’s first Academic Decathlon, five schools — Cedar Rapids Washington, Linn-Mar, Mount Vernon, Solon and Williamsburg — competed in regional competition on Feb. 7, 1986, at Linn-Mar High School in Marion.
The Cedar Rapids Washington team advanced to the state competition in Denison in west-central Iowa. Denison won that contest and represented Iowa at the 1986 national competition in Los Angeles.
The next year, in 1987, the Grant Wood Area Education Agency hosted the regional contest at Cedar Rapids Washington High School. A Washington team beat out competitors from eight school districts to go to state, where it came in second to Ames.
In 1988, Washington came in second again at state, losing to Denison.
In 1989, Council Bluffs Thomas Jefferson won the state title.
In 1990, Denison won the state tournament for the third time in five years. By then, the competition had grown to include teams from 100 Iowa high schools.
By 1996, Denison had taken seven state titles out of 11. Ames had won twice and Cedar Rapids Washington and Council Bluffs Jefferson had one title each.
And then Cedar Rapids Jefferson began its run.
Cedar Rapids Jefferson won its first Iowa Academic Decathlon title in 1997 after being the runner-up for three years.
Team members that year were seniors Matt Ash, Josh Baack, Paul Berchenbriter and Adam Sadler; juniors Sonya Ehret, Kevin Ralston and Erin Schulte; and sophomore Carl Adams. The team placed 11th in national competition.
Jefferson won state again in 1998, with the team going to Warwick, R.I., to compete against 340 students from 38 states. The team finished in eighth place.
in 1999, Jefferson and Kennedy faced off in the large-school category in regional competition, with Jefferson advancing to state competition and winning its third trip to national competition.
Jefferson lost the state title to Denison In 2000.
Jefferson came back in 2001 and won the state title. It hasn’t looked back since.
Jefferson teams have won 22 consecutive state titles and have represented Iowa at 24 national competitions. That would have been 25 national competitions had not the 2020 National Academic Decathlon been canceled because of COVID-19.
In 2019, the Jefferson team placed second in national competition in Division II. In 2008, the Jefferson decathletes were in Garden Grove, Calif., where they placed third in the nation.
Jefferson teams were ranked 10th in the nation in 2001, seventh in the nation in 2002 and sixth in 2003.
Despite the sacrifices and hours of study, the 2007 team members didn’t seem to mind when they had to skip their high school prom to go to the national competition in Hawaii. The trip was funded by the school’s activities fund, fundraisers, grants and donations, according to The Gazette.
Coach dies in 2016
In 2016, the Jefferson decathlon team’s longtime coach, John Wojtowicz, died. A Jefferson graduate and an English teacher, he led the J-Hawks to 16 state championships. His teams finished in the top four at three national tournaments.
“Entire teams of former decathletes” attended Wojtowicz’s memorial service, The Gazette reported.
Kevin Darrow, who’d been a team adviser, took over as the team’s coach. He’d been a member of Jefferson’s decathlon team in 1992, where he’d been coached by Wojtowicz.
The 2020 state competition was held virtually because of the pandemic, with Jefferson again coming out on top. The students had been scheduled to go to Anchorage, Alaska, in late April for nationals, before the competition was canceled.
In 2021, Jefferson against won the state virtual competition and placed fifth in the national virtual competition of 41 teams.