Academic Decathlon Comes to Vista


The whiteboard in Mr. Duffey’s classroom.


MVHS is full of diverse student interests as the home to more than 50 clubs and activities. That being said, another club―one that may not be well recognized―is in the works.

Students may be unfamiliar with the name “Academic Decathlon,” but it is the newest developing club at MVHS (starting in the 2020-2021 school year), sponsored by English teacher Sean Duffey. 

Academic Decathlon is an academic-based competition with 10 subjects and a team of nine members. However, any number of students may join the club). Students study math, science, music, social science, economics, literature, speech, essay and interview in preparation for regional and national competitions. Founded in 1968, Academic Decathlon teams have been expanding in high schools across the country ever since.

Every year, teams focus their studying around one specific topic, which rotates with each new season. Past topics have included The Great Depression, World War I, World War II and the American Civil War. These topics are released by the United States Academic Decathlon for teams to study.

With the amount of effort students put into their performances, Academic Decathlon requires a level of rigor from students. Teams are sorted into categories based on GPA: Honor (3.80 – 4.00), Scholastic (3.20 – 3.799) and Varsity (3.199 and below).

“The key to Academic Decathlon is wanting to do Academic Decathlon… it’s very self-motivating in the sense that all the studying and preparing is all done outside of class,” Duffey said. “For the most part, you’re talking about students who value academics, and who want to be part of a team.”

While students may join for various reasons, the community aspect can be appealing.

“In the past, a lot of students who have joined [Academic Decathlon] might feel disenfranchised because they don’t play sports, or they like academics and want to be a part of that,” Duffey said. “It is a place where they can go and feel like they belong.”

For some students, academic interest is a primary reason for participation.

“I see Academic Decathlon as a way to become more rounded as a student [and] as a citizen of the world,” interested student junior Ella Iveslatt said. “These things that I may not otherwise do research about or learn about, I can now learn about them and become more knowledgeable about the world around me.”

Academic Decathlon has a large presence in other states around the country, such as in California and Texas. Before moving to Colorado, Duffey sponsored Academic Decathlon in Texas for multiple years.

“About 10 years ago, I started in Texas, and I started the team from scratch when I moved to my second school,” Duffey said. “One of my principals moved to Little Elm [High School], and she asked me if I could start an AcDec (Academic Decathlon) program, so I know what it takes to start it from scratch.”

The presence of Academic Decathlon teams across the state of Colorado, however, is limited. Currently, no Douglas County schools have an Academic Decathlon team, and there are only a handful of teams across the state.

“I think it [Academic Decathlon] gives an opportunity for all different types of students, whether they’re super interested in school or they’re not [as interested in academics],” Iveslatt said. “I think it gives them an opportunity to maybe explore some different subjects and become better at specific subjects they may struggle at, or something that they’re already good at.”

Duffey has a similar perspective on the benefits of Academic Decathlon.

“Coming from Texas, I see how big the program can be,” Duffey said. “I see the camaraderie that comes with it and how good it is for students.”

Despite the effort required to be a part of Academic Decathlon, Duffey said it can be a rewarding experience for all parties involved.

“I would’ve never been a good Academic Decathlon student. I don’t know if I was mature enough in high school to appreciate this, so it’s really cool as a coach to get to work with students who are very highly motivated and very intelligent. I’m only [one] piece as a coach,” Duffey said.

A primary goal of Duffey’s is not only to introduce Academic Decathlon to the Vista community, but also to schools across the district and even the state.

“The long-term part of our plan is actually to make more competition,” Duffey said. “It’s a community, and if we don’t have other teams to compete against, then it’s getting very difficult for us to keep up our motivation to do so. “

Ultimately, regardless of how the program influences the Mountain Vista community, for Duffey, passion is key.

“When I first started Academic Decathlon, when I didn’t know what it was, I wasn’t sure what I was able to accomplish. I wasn’t sure how to get students to be successful. Over the last 10 years of coaching… I’ve learned how to hone their [students’] skills.” Duffey said. “I really do believe that long-term, there’s nothing that the Academic Decathlon team at Mountain Vista can’t do.”

Interested students should attend the informational meetings on Tuesday, March 10 at 3 p.m., or on Thursday, March 12 during SOAR in room U313.