Twenty-two Soldiers of the 304th Military Intelligence Battalion went back to high school last weekend, not as students, but to help judge an academic competition. The volunteer Soldiers, along with school employees, church members, parents, service organization representatives, defense contractors, Department of the Army civilians and former students went through a brief training session to judge the Academic Decathlon hosted by Buena High School Jan. 10 through Saturday.
Academic Decathlon is the largest academic competition for high schools in the United States. Its goals are to encourage learning in a broad range of subjects and promote excellence in communications skills, according to Gary Burden, Buena High School Academic Decathlon coach.
Decathlon is a 10-event competition in which students are tested in seven subjects: math, art, language and literature, social science, music and economics. The testable subjects follow a theme associated with each year’s competition. This year’s theme was World War I.
Burden said the competition was a great opportunity for Soldiers to see just how rigorous the program is. As three of the 10 events, participants are required to provide a resume and give speeches, one on a topic of their choice, and one prepared on the spot from a list of topics. The students wrote and were graded on an essay, choosing a provided topic.
Students also go through an interview where the judges ask them about their past experiences, future goals and questions pertaining to the decathlon’s annual theme.
Besides the interview, students need to know about how the theme relates to art, literature, music, economics and social studies for the competition’s written test. Math and science are also included in the testing.
“The kids get a lot of insight; it’s not just an account of [World War I], it’s also insight of the well-known authors, what was influential about the war and what changed in society,” Burden said.
Not only did the Soldiers have the opportunity to witness and judge the students’ academic success, Command Sgt. Maj. Eric Fowler, 304th MI Bn. command sergeant major, explained that they had the chance to connect with the community.
“A lot of it is just giving back to the community for us, supporting the kids that go to school here and the school itself,” Fowler said. “A lot of those same Soldiers judging have kids in the school.”
Sgt. 1st Class Robert Dennison, Company A, 304th, MI Bn., served as Soldier-volunteer coordinator. He discussed how the call to help with the event at Buena was well-received battalion-wide. Soldiers included officers, warrant officers, noncommissioned officers, cadre and students.
While the competition’s panel was diverse, all Soldiers and civilians judging were trained to follow the same standards when giving their grades and scores. They also had to take the same consideration when judging — student competitors would be nervous.
“I get nervous anyway, so it just helps me when people just act like they care and pay attention,” Dennison said when discussing how he would defuse adolescent nervousness during the interviews.
Also volunteering as an interview judge, Staff Sgt. Mark Lledo, Company C, 304th MI Bn., had his own advice for students, sharing what is taught to student Soldiers. He said they should not to take things to the extreme and make the situation simple in order to overcome nervousness.
After the competition, Burden enthusiastically praised the judges.
“Your volunteer judges were priceless in helping us put together a good tournament. Not every district or school is known as well as we are for the professionalism of our judges.
“We had approximately 88 judges at this most recent tournament, 22 of which were your Soldiers.
“I want to say how grateful I am to [School Liaison Officer] Erin Schnitger and Command Sergeant Major Fowler for promptly responding to our request for judges and for having the Soldiers prompt and professional in everything they did.”
Despite the nerves and rigorous competition, Buena High School’s Academic Decathlon team usually ranks in the top 10 percent nationally. During this event, nine schools participated.
“We finished fifth out of the nine teams,” Burden said. “We were expecting to finish in seventh or eighth. As part of our academic tradition we routinely get better with each tournament,” adding they will move on to the regional tournament next.