What happens when your school heads to the state championship for smart kids three years running? At Seagoville High School in the Dallas school district, students take notice – and the Academic Decathlon team doubles in size.
Coach Mark Harrington is the force behind this team.
In the middle of July, Harrington sat in a rolling chair in front of his class.
“So for our purposes, we want to ask the question, why Africa?” he says.
A couple dozen kids are listening to him. They aren’t summer school students who need to fix failed grades. They’re part of Seagoville’s Academic Decathlon team. Harrington, a Seagoville High teacher, has recruited a lot of these kids.
He’s lecturing on Africa. It’s the topic of the year for Academic Decathlon. Harrington points to pictures of primates and humans.
“You need to know these stages,” he tells his students. “You need to know homo sapiens, sapiens, all the way back to australopithecus robustos. After we’ve become state champions, then, OK, you can forget.”
Winning that championship is partly what this summer prep course is about. Students are poring through 950 pages of research on Africa, but they don’t mind.
“I like learning, whether it’s during school or not. I don’t miss an opportunity to learn,” Gamaliel Flores says.
Flores is a newbie decathlete, who could have slept in this summer.
“I mean, I’m already used to the schedule I had for school, so this is really nothing,” he continues.
What amounts to something is the growth of this team. Harrington says last year there were 30 students. Now, it’s nearly doubled, up to 57.
“Nothing succeeds like success,” Harrington says. “You know, we’ve had three years of success. And when the kids see that I think it becomes something they want to be a part of. And you know, these are the kinds of kids that actually like learning things.”
They have a lot to learn -- African music, literature, social studies, and more. They’re preparing for regional and state competitions where they’ll be quizzed, give speeches and write essays. Brandon Mather found he loved the challenge -- he needed it, too.
“In school normally I don’t bother studying,” Brandon says. “I don’t ever read anything. I just do the work and pass. But in Academic Decathlon, I did actually have to study and go over work and remember things. So it was challenging to me.”
Harrington learned he loved challenging these kids because he’d see them grow as a result. He used to worry he was too harsh.
“I had a kid call me once on the day of a competition,” Harrington says. “ ‘I can’t come because of a headache that my mother has.’ I’m like nope, you’re coming. Calls me back with excuse number 2. ‘I can’t come.’ And finally I said you figure out how to get here but you get here. And you know what? He got there and competed.”
Harrington says there’s no room for excuses.
“You’ve got to step up to the plate. Whether you swing and hit or swing and miss, you’ve got to swing.”
That kind of tough love worked for 18-year-old Jydiann Dialino.
“You know you need to be honest with them and say hey, you messed up here, do better or I’m going to cut you,” Jydiann says. “He was brutally honest with me and I would rather someone be honest with me than sugar coat it.”
Jydiann decided he didn’t want to disappoint. So he worked harder.
Andrew Villagomez learned a lot of similar lessons from Harrington.
“I don’t trust anyone without a dark side,” Andrew says. “Someone who opens you up to reality and gives you a reality check. Whether it’s money, people, or the world in general. He taught me how to deal with people I don’t like. Keep your patience. Just be as calm as you can.”
Seagoville Principal Angela West expects one of these days Harrington’s team will take the state title.
“A champion wins and he has a winning spirit,” West says. “He has a winning heart. You know, champions inspire others around them to do more and so that’s what Mr. Harrington has done for our students. He inspires me to do more.”
Harrington wouldn’t have it any other way. He loves teaching.
“You tear up at graduation,” Harrington says. “It sounds trite, but you do come to love them. Some of these kids have had hardship after hardship and they keep focusing on something down the road that they want to get to, and if I can help them see down the road that’s better, you know, I consider myself lucky.”
Harrington calls Academic Decathlon so much fun he’s amazed he gets paid. Being the coach, he says, has been a blessing.
This summer, KERA’s education reporters are profiling folks making a difference in North Texas schools. We’re calling them American Graduate Champions.