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Cedar Rapids Jefferson High team brings home national academic decathlon title
After 22 consecutive years of winning state competition, J-Hawks tops in the nation
CEDAR RAPIDS — Kevin Darrow, the coach of the Jefferson High School academic decathlon team, said he cried tears of joy when the team won the National Academic Decathlon last month for the first time in the school’s history.
“When we won nationals, it was so crazy for all of us,” said Brianna Olson, 18, a senior and member of the team. “Everyone was so happy.”
For 22 consecutive years, the Cedar Rapids Jefferson High team have taken top honors in the Iowa Academic Decathlon. J-Hawks teams have won the state competition for 25 of the past 26 years and have historically done well in national competition, including being the runner-up in 2019.
Olson said it’s a “big tradition” to win the state competition and uphold the school’s legacy.
On April 23, the team surpassed that, placing first in Division 2 nationals during the virtual competition from April 21 to 23.
“Pure emotion,” Darrow said.
The team gathered at Jefferson High’s cafeteria that morning to have breakfast with their families and await the news.
“It feels very surreal,” said Olivia Proctor, 18, a Jefferson senior and a member of the academic decathlon team. Waiting for the results, she said, “was really tense.”
“I think I was getting more stressed out watching Mr. Darrow pace around the room,” she said. “When we saw our names pop up, we freaked out. It was such a crazy feeling.”
Proctor, who also plays rugby, said she’s spent this school year juggling academic decathlon and a sport she loves. She often had to leave rugby practice early to study and vice versa.
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.
For four days before the competition, the students studied “nonstop,” said Darrow, who has coached decathlon for 16 years, with nine of those years at Jefferson.
In his first years at Jefferson, Darrow assisted longtime decathlon coach John Wojtowicz and took over the main coaching duties when Wojtowicz died in 2016.
Darrow was a member of the 1992 Jefferson High academic decathlon team, coached by Wojtowicz.
“The kids in our program are in everything else, too — choir, show choir, band, rugby,” Darrow said. “They’re all juggling multiple activities.”
By participating in academic decathlon, he said. students learn how to learn and develop serious study skills. Some students spend hours rewriting the study guide. Others make flash cards. Still others create their own exams to give to other team members, Darrow said.
“I tell kids every year it’s not what we learn, it’s how we learn,” Darrow said.
During the school year, the team meets for one to three study sessions a week, each lasting several hours. Darrow estimates the time spent studying each year at between 600 and 800 hours.
The students work hard to win state ever year, he said. “It’s not a given,” he added. “Each year is a new team.”
Jefferson is known nationally as one of the most frequent schools at national academic decathlon competitions, Darrow said.
“Only one other school in the nation has made it to nationals more than us,” he said.
“Putting a national title under our belt helps solidify that we’re one of the top programs in the nation,” Darrow said. “There’s obviously a lot of pride.”
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