A different kind of coach

Academic Decathlon inspires achievement  

By Rodney Lane 

When we think of coaches, we often think of sports. Football, basketball and track coaches are traditionally some of the most celebrated coaches in New Jersey. But for more than 30 years the Academic Decathlon has held competitions in the Garden State led by the coaching of highly talented NJEA members. Dr. B. Franklin Reinauer, a business executive, economist and local elected official from Ridgewood, brought the Academic Decathlon to New Jersey in 1985. 

The Academic Decathlon takes students out of their comfort zones. It prepares them for college because it focuses on helping young people develop into well-rounded students.  

Decathletes compete in 10 competitions. These include: 

  •  Seven multiple choice tests—in mathematics, science, music, social science, economics, literature and fine arts.  
  • Speech—impromptu and prepared.  
  • A written essay.  
  • An interview—conducted by a panel.  

 The Academic Decathlon has three student divisions: Honors, Scholastic and Varsity. Three students comprise each division. The Honors Division is made up of students with A averages. The Scholastic Division is made up of students with B averages. The Varsity division consists of students with C averages. 

“The Academic Decathlon is something along the lines of sports for kids who weren’t sports kids,” says Lora Santucci, a member of the Morris Hills Regional District Education Association. “They prepare, practice and condition themselves through various ways of studying. There is a place for everybody.”  

Santucci is a math and computer science teacher at Morris Hills High School. She has been an educator for 25 years and an Academic Decathlon coach for the past 11 years.  

Santucci has found it challenging to get students to participate in the Varsity Division. Many of these students are not typically recognized for academic achievement, so it has proven more difficult to recruit them for the team. But led by the team captains, students are assigned to various parts of the curricula. Student-driven crash courses have been proven to be effective in building Varsity-level students’ confidence. The courses that they present to each other increase their mental conditioning.  

“Most schools do not have Academic Decathlon teams,” Santucci says. “Many schools don’t have the funding for Academic Decathlon the way they do for sports. Visibility would be one way to change that.”  

Santucci notes that funding the program may be an issue in many schools. She hopes, however, that with more visibility around the Academic Decathlon, more districts will be interested in funding it. 

Coach Laura Durso holding her team’s Third Place Academic Decathlon trophy at the New Jersey State Awards Dinner.

Connecting the academic disciplines 

“What Academic Decathlon does for our students is amazing because it takes a content area and connects all the academic disciplines,” says Meredith Noah of the Ramapo Indian Hills Education Association. “It gives them a base of things that they may not have access to.” 

Noah is in her 26th year both as a social studies teacher and as an Academic Decathlon coach. What has kept Noah involved with the decathlon for so long is seeing students stretch themselves to the point that they end up being rewarded for academics.  

“The structure of the three divisions allows for a variety of students to receive acknowledgment,” Noah says. “I work in a school noted for its successful athletic program. I am proud of those kids, but I think it’s really important and special to also reward students academically. It’s rare for students who may not be the best students to receive academic accolades.”  

Noah notes that some of her students find it challenging to juggle multiple activities. Over the years, Noah has had numerous memorable moments, many of them involve students that participated on the Varsity level who have struggled with academics.  

“It gives them a lot of confidence and a lot of drive,” Noah says. “And the fact that it covers every academic area builds their confidence even more.” 

Hackensack students Rihanna Jeanfrancois (l), Varsity Division silver overall state high scorer, and Shruti Sangamkar, Honors Division bronze overall state high scorer.

Seeing students from a different perspective 

“The best thing about the Academic Decathlon is the students,” says Stacy Cozin of the Parsippany-Troy Hills Education Association. “As a librarian, I don’t always get to know a core group of kids, but with this I get to know a core group who are dedicated, and I watch them evolve over the years.” 

Cozin has been a library media specialist at Parsippany High School for 15 years and a coach for Academic Decathlon for 11 years. Cozin is not in the classroom, but her experiences as library media specialist gives her a unique perspective as an Academic Decathlon coach.  

Parsippany has been to the Academic Decathlon at the national level seven times, but Cozin still recognizes the challenge in getting students committed to work beyond their rigorous schedules. Cozin reflects on numerous students who have come back from college and expressed how the Academic Decathlon prepared them with solid study habits for college.  

“It’s not just for ‘A’ students,” Cozin says. “A successful team has all different levels of students. You don’t need to be an ‘A’ student, you just come and bring your best and you’ll get something out of it.” 

Coach Laura Durso back at school with Hackensack decathletes. From left: Alyssa Cavallo, Marissa Dooley, 
Rihanna Jeanfrancois and Durso.

Building positive habits 

“The best outcomes for our students who participate in the Academic Decathlon are the positive habits it builds for them—not just the knowledge that they learn, but the study skills, the dedication and the teamwork,” says Laura Durso of the Hackensack Education Association. “At the end of the day, it is a team effort to get as far as we do.”  

Laura Durso has been a social studies teacher at Hackensack High School for 15 years and a coach for Academic Decathlon for seven years. She got involved in the Academic Decathlon by attending a competition to support her students.  

Durso is a New Jersey state champion coach and one of only three female coaches in the decathlon’s Region 1. The emphasis is on the students’ academic success, and Durso understands that student leadership must play the ultimate role.  

“There are 10 different content areas that the students have to try to master in a short amount of time,” Durso says. “As the coach, I have limitations in helping with those content areas, but that’s when the kids have to really assert themselves as leaders in the various subject areas and do a lot of peer teaching.” 

Not just for students with ‘perfect’ GPAs 

“One of the things that I really love is that it’s not just for students with perfect GPAs,” says John Marshall, president of the Academic Decathlon Board of Trustees.  

The Academic Decathlon is a vehicle for students who may not fit into the traditional scholastic definitions of success and allow them to be recognized for their academic achievements. Marshall believes that the dedicated coaches and students found in this article serve as examples, leading others to follow them. That will make it certain that the Academic Decathlon will grow to even greater heights.  

For more information, visit the Academic Decathlon of New Jersey at adnj.org. 

Rodney Lane is a part-time NJEA Communications and Professional Development and Instructional Issues consultant. He is a full-time special education teacher at Hackensack High School.