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From Russia with love — of learning

Spread around a typical school room, a group of high school students are engrossed in study — some clustered together, quizzing each other with flash cards, others sunk into yellow bean bag chairs with books in their laps, and some crowded around a computer. Two students debate a flash card question and the group gives a "High Five" to the one with the correct answer.

The question? "What political right did the 1936 Soviet Constitution extend to all individuals?"

Most people would be hard-pressed to know the answer, but these Casa Grande High School students do. They are taking part in the Academic Decathlon, a prestigious event founded in 1981 to provide students the opportunity to excel academically through team competition.

Academic Decathlon

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The overall topic they must master for 2013 is "Russia," a formidable achievement for the typical 17-year-old, who may be more familiar with the latest pop culture icon than Mikhail Gorbachev. But these students are just as enthused by absorbing the weighty details of Russian culture, politics, music, literature and science as they are about knowing all the latest "Gangnam Style" dance moves.

There are approximately 500 high schools and 13,000 students in the California Academic Decathlon. Each nine-member team must include three A students, three B students, and three C or below students.

"This requirement is a way to reach students who don't thrive with traditional teaching methods, but have good potential," explains math and physics teacher Richard Pillsbury, who coached the competition for Casa Grande for 25 years and is spearheading the math, art, music and economics sections this year.

Andrew Aja, a world history teacher at Casa Grande, is this year's coach. Aja participated in the competition in 2004 when he was a student at the school and brings a wealth of anecdotal information to the team.

"My older sister competed and my parents encouraged me, even though I was not a straight-A honor student," he said.

The program has become such an integral part of Casa Grande that students who join "Ac Dec", as they call it, are not regarded as nerds, but treated like athletes. With a long history of success in the competition, there is a certain cachet that adds a "cool" factor to being a participant.

For senior Lauren Dion, it has been a way to open up her mind to new ideas. "I've wanted to be an architect since I was a kid," says Dion, "but I have started looking at the field differently. I'm not stuck on one outlook now because I took a chance and went outside my 'comfort' zone.'"


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