Intellectual Powerhouse

Johnston Academic Decathlon team takes home silver


In a stunning performance against some of Rhode Island’s most intelligent youth, the Johnston High School Academic Decathlon team placed second during Sunday’s statewide Rhode Island Academic Decathlon competition.

More than 200 students in teams from 12 public and private schools took part in the daylong tournament at the Community College of Rhode Island in Warwick. Although the team from Bishop Hendricken High School won the competition for the eighth consecutive year with 45,280 points, almost 12,00 more than Johnston, the Johnston team matched their all-time best record of second place in the competition, which they last achieved in 2013.

“I was so proud of everyone on the team. I think we worked so hard, every single person on the team who competed, I’m just so happy. It’s a great way to end my four years with the Decathlon,” said senior decathlete Abigail Agnew, who won two gold, two silver and a bronze medal during the event.

The overall theme of this year’s event was Africa, meaning all areas of competition, with the exception of math, speech and interview, revolved around the history and culture found on the continent. Each competitor took a test in seven subject areas: music, art, math, science, language and literature, social science and economics. Participants also delivered a speech and took part in an interview before a panel of judges. There was also an essay portion of the competition completed online prior to the statewide contest.

“Oh my gosh, I’m in awe. I’m in awe of how wonderful my kids did. They studied, they pulled together, they’re so supportive of each other, we’re just a family,” said Johnston Decathlon coach and business teacher Debra Smyth. “They worked hard and piggybacked off of each other. I am so proud.”

Smyth said the competition isn’t about knowing every single subject, but that if students are passionate about certain areas they can focus on those and excel.

“It’s not about being an A, B or C student. What you put into it is what you get out of it. Kids get the idea that the Academic Decathlon is all this studying, all this reading. It doesn’t have to be that. You can gear it towards what a student likes,” she said.

Since the beginning of the school year, the students held team meetings, members studied together, conducted mock interviews, gave speeches, discussed questions and quizzed each other, and took field trips.

“I have such an overwhelming sense of pride for these students. They came together in such a strong way. The group dynamic is really noteworthy. At every turn we saw juniors and seniors stepping up and really nurturing newer team members and taking a leadership role that was really unprecedented for this team,” said coach, art teacher and fine arts co-chair Kerry Murphy. “They worked so hard, and to see the fruits of their labor pay off, a coach can’t ask for anything more. It’s so rewarding.”

Murphy said that one of the best takeaways from the event is the “fostering of lifelong learning and the love of that learning.”

“The camaraderie and the support system really nurtures good study skills, so I think the benefits are twofold. It’s really that social aspect and taking their intrinsic learning abilities and nudging that to the next level,” she said.

The day was capped off with a “Super Quiz,” a fast-paced quiz-bowl type showcase competition, in which Johnston placed second overall.

“I’m very proud of the kids and I’m very proud of the coaches, they just shined in all of the areas. Just watching them in that final round in the Super Quiz, they were just phenomenal and gave Hendricken a run for their money,” said Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr., who came out to support the students. “As you can see, they’re a tight-knit group. The coaches gave them a lot of experiences during the course of the year. These two coaches, they’ve done a phenomenal job and taken the team to new heights.”

Johnston proved once again that it is an intellectual powerhouse as they continued their streak of finishing in the top five spots for at least the last six years. This year’s competition marked the 35th year of the Rhode Island Academic Decathlon competition.

“I just think it shows what a great system we have, what great programs we have, what great teachers we have. They worked hard and they prepared these kids. It’s a community effort, involving all the teachers at the schools. It’s the whole community and the parents that are here,” said Johnston High School Principal Dennis Morrel. “It just shows you what great things we have in Johnston. I’m amazed and proud, I’ve known these kids since they were 11, and it’s just amazing and shows you that Johnston is a good place.”

Senior Benjamin Budway said he’s learned a lot from the Academic Decathlon program, which has helped shape his academic career.

“My freshman year was the first year I learned economics, and after that it changed what I wanted to do in college and what I wanted to study. So after that, I just assumed that eventually I would learn something new, and every year I’ve learned something new that’s helped me out,” said Budway, who took home two gold, six silver, a bronze and another bronze medal for the overall competition.

Budway was thrilled with the way the team performed and paid respects to Hendricken – who will move on to the national competition in Frisco, Texas – for their outstanding performance.

“I feel very, very good. This is what we wanted. If you put in the work, you’ll do well,” he said. “While you don’t like that [Hendricken] wins so many in Rhode Island, you feel pride when they go to nationals and show that Rhode Island can compete.”

Overall, the team took home 19 medals from the competition. Individual medal winners include: Joel Aubin, who was an alternate, received a gold medal, Benjamin Budway received a bronze for overall competition, along with two gold, six silver and another bronze; Abigail Agnew received two gold, two silver and one bronze; Shaheer Jamil received one gold and one silver; and Kelly Sigui received one bronze medal.


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