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Strong learners: Academically gifted students abound in public schools

(Bob Croslin)

Six teams of high school students, many wearing polo shirts with the names of their county school districts, sit intently at tables in a darkened room, four to a table. The atmosphere is tense. From across the room an adult reads a question aloud:

“Question: Completely factor the function: f of x equals x cubed minus one-fourth x squared minus x plus one-fourth.” The question is barely out of the reader’s mouth before one of the students slams her hand down on a buzzer and is recognized — “Team 5, Indian River.”

The student responds: “x plus one — these are quantities,” she says — “times the quantity x minus one times the quantity x minus one over four.”

“That is correct,” responds the reader, and Team 5 is awarded 10 points.

Other questions follow, ranging across the academic spectrum: Language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, the fine arts, world languages, physical education, health and technology.

Questions like:

Identify the first U.S. president to apply the 25th Amendment during his administration.

Which one or ones of the four individuals described in the following could have been passengers on the Hindenburg?

1. Author of “Of Mice and Men”

2. Artist of “Guernica”

3. Discoverer of X-rays

4. Composer of “Tristan and Isolde”

Which one of the following four rulers was known by the Greek name Ozymandias in Shelley’s poem?

1. Turnus 2. Cheops 3. Priam 4. Ramses II

As you can see, some questions are just arcane subject matter, souped-up “Jeopardy.” Others, like the Hindenburg question, involve integrating knowledge across several disciplines. It ain’t Trivial Pursuit. It is, instead, the Commissioner’s Academic Challenge, an annual tournament that will take place late this month (April 27-29) in Orlando at Disney’s Grand Floridian.

The three-day competition has been around since 1986. Every school system in Florida can field a team — four regulars, two alternates and a coach. Some districts stage a competition among their high schools’ academic teams and send the winner. Others pick a group of all-stars. Teams compete in one of three divisions, depending on the size of the district. Over the course of three days, successive rounds winnow the divisional competitors to three teams that vie for the championship in their division.

Just as with athletics, there are traditional powerhouses — Escambia and Okaloosa consistently field strong teams. Suwannee County wins a lot in Division II. Orange and Pinellas counties (full disclosure: My son, who graduated four years ago, was on the Pinellas County team for several years) compete well. Manatee, Clay and Columbia, which fielded a team for the first time last year, won their respective divisions in 2016.

As a spectator at several of the tournaments, I was floored by the breadth of knowledge the young people displayed, and the speed with which they could perform complex calculations. Teams typically feature at least one math/physics whiz they turn to for those answers, a kind of academic-team equivalent of a third-down back in football.

The skill of the contestants creates “quite a challenge” for the educators around the state who write the questions, says Lisa Rawls, an educator in the Polk County school system who has run the tournament for the past 10 years. “We make the questions difficult, but the kids always surprise us with how fast they can answer.”

Members of the three division championship teams get $500 in scholarship money from the state, with six “all-tournament” team members getting an additional $1,000. In addition to organizing the tournament itself, Rawls is trying to line up sponsors willing to contribute additional scholarship money. “If we could increase the $500 scholarship to $1,000” with additional private donations, “it would be ideal,” she says.

The only other thing missing in the competition is a few more teams. Sadly, not every school district fields a team — for several years now, the number of participating districts has ranged between 38 and 42. The event also draws less media attention than it should. While the state Education Commissioner typically shows up to bore the kids with a speech at the closing banquet, Florida’s recent governors — including the STEM-obsessed current officeholder — haven’t used their star power to draw more attention to the event.

If you’re curious, the tournament will be live-streamed — see academic-challenge.org/cac/index. For those of us who’ve become cynical about the public education system’s commitment to excellence, the tournament offers an annual reminder that Florida’s public schools still turn out extremely bright, well-rounded kids who know how to collaborate.

And if you think it’s boring sitting around for an hour watching smart kids do heavy academic lifting, think again. The competitions can be as intense as anything you’ll see on a football field or basketball floor. One finals competition I watched came down to the last question and featured a challenge by one team and a review by the judges similar to instant replay.

Ultimately, what’s on display isn’t just intellectual horsepower. It’s what school is supposed to be about — the joy of learning and the satisfaction that comes with achievement.