Fifty years later, OC superintendent’s vision of ‘a decathlon of studies’ is bigger than ever

San Clemente High students at the 2017 Orange County Academic Decathlon
Decathletes from San Clemente High School compete in the Super Quiz Relay at the 2017 Orange County Academic Decathlon. The event, established in 1968 by former Orange County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Peterson, turns 50 this year.

Believe it or not, this year marks the 50th anniversary of that 10-event scholarly showdown known as the Academic Decathlon.

It’s been pretty well documented that the Academic Decathlon originated right here in Orange County, the brainchild of former County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Peterson. But few probably know that the idea came to Peterson while he was a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

Captured after his B-17 bomber went down, the future superintendent pondered the future of education in America and wrote in his journal about “a decathlon of studies,” according to the U.S. Academic Decathlon’s official history. Years later, Peterson would turn that concept into reality by organizing the first Decathlon at Bolsa Grande High School in 1968.

Students at the 2017 Orange County Academic Decathlon

On Saturday, hundreds of students from 42 local high schools will continue the tradition at the 2018 edition of the Orange County Academic Decathlon, which culminates a week later with the ever-popular Super Quiz Relay. As in years past, teams will be competing for top honors and an invitation to represent Orange County at the California Academic Decathlon in March. The U.S. Academic Decathlon championships will follow April 19 through April 21 in Frisco, Texas.

“It is incredibly inspiring to consider the impact of Dr. Peterson’s vision,” said OCDE Program Specialist Kristin Rigby. “Over the course of five decades, the Academic Decathlon has grown from a small county-level competition into an international program that impacts thousands of students annually, expanding their knowledge, sharpening their research skills, increasing their confidence and forging lifelong connections.”  

Presented by the Orange County Academic Decathlon Association and OCDE, this year’s contest is supported by the contributions of community members and sponsors, including NuVision Federal Credit Union, Del Taco Restaurants Inc., the Orange County Register, Aeries Software, Matific Education and the California Association of Latino Superintendents and Administrators. It also marks the start of academic event season in Orange County.

If you’re not familiar with the Academic Decathlon, here are the basics:

It’s a scholastic contest featuring 10 set events — hence the “deca” prefix — held at the county, state and national levels. Nine-member teams compete for the highest scores on multiple-choice exams, speeches, interviews and essay assignments. Oh, and each team must include three “Honor” students (those with GPAs of 3.75 or above), three “Scholastic” students (GPAs of 3.00 to 3.74) and three “Varsity” students (GPAs of 2.99 or below).

WHAT TO WATCH The Super Quiz Relay, which encourages fans to cheer on their favorite squads from the bleachers, will be open to the public. Time: 2:30 p.m. Date: Saturday, Feb. 3 Place: Westminster High gymnasium, 14325 Goldenwest St., Westminster

Local decathletes will kick off the communications portion of the county competition on Saturday, Jan. 27 by presenting prepared and impromptu speeches, participating in personal interviews and writing essays. Approximately 150 community volunteers have signed on to assist as speech and interview judges.

A week later, on Saturday, Feb. 3, participants will take 30-minute multiple-choice tests in the subject areas of art, economics, literature, mathematics, music, science and social science. Excluding math, each test will incorporate the 2017-18 theme, “Africa.”

The final day of the competition will also feature the Super Quiz Relay, a high-energy contest that feels — and sounds — like a sporting event, with fans cheering on their favorite squads from the bleachers. Open to the public, this year’s Super Quiz Relay will take place at 2:30 p.m. in the Westminster High School gymnasium, located at 14325 Goldenwest St.

Rigby, the program specialist, says Orange County decathletes report spending an average of 20 to 25 hours a week preparing for the Academic Decathlon. About 10 of those hours involve working with coaches and teammates during after-school meetings; the remaining practice time is spent studying alone or with teammates outside of school.

Along with commitment and content knowledge, academic decathlons promote communication and collaboration, which are considered key components of a 21st-century education. Students create tests and quizzes for one another, they host scrimmages, and they analyze the prepared and impromptu speeches and interviews of their classmates. Those who are stronger at one academic subject often tutor and coach their teammates.

“Many decathletes develop enduring friendships as a result of spending countless hours preparing and experiencing the rigors of competition together,” Rigby said.

Top honors, medals and scholarships will be awarded at the OCAD Awards Ceremony at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 9 in the Bill Medley Auditorium at Santa Ana High School.

For additional information, visit the Orange County Academic Decathlon webpage or contact OCDE Program Specialist Kristin Rigby at