While their classmates at St. Petersburg High School spent last Friday night primping for their circus-themed prom, some of the smartest students in Pinellas County were in a hotel room at Disney World playing video games, reviewing trivia and dueling with blow-up swords.
Missing out on the dance turned out to be worth it. The Pinellas County Academic Team went on to win the statewide Commissioners Academic Challenge, a weekend-long academic trivia competition among the top students in 39 of Florida’s 67 school districts.
Whether they will compete in the National Tournament of Academic Excellence depends on funding.
For now, though, proving their brainpower to the state was enough.
“Prom is for losers,” said senior Solomon Howard. “I think for all of us, Academic Team is the biggest deal in the world; and, for me, this was the last chance, our last year to prove ourselves. To be able to win the whole thing was more then we could ever hope for and such a huge accomplishment.”
The six students on Team Pinellas have earned their share of accomplishments.
Aadith Moorthy, a junior from Palm Harbor University High School, received the only perfect score in the school district on the SAT this year and won the National Geography Bee in 2008. Howard, the team captain from St. Petersburg High School, competed and won $10,000 on Teen Jeopardy when he was 14. The rest are veritable experts in fields ranging from physics to Shakespeare, and almost all will go on to Ivy League schools after graduation.
Team Pinellas was comprised of the best Academic Team competitors in the county, determined by coaches from teams at each high school in the district, and notched the county’s fifth win in the competition since it was created in 1986, said Tournament Director Lisa Rawls. The last was in 2008.
Senior Eric Mulligan and junior Nicholas Walker, both from St. Petersburg High School, senior Caleb Eary from Northeast High School and senior Jonathen Settle from Seminole High School rounded out the team.
All six received a $500 scholarship and Howard received an additional $1,000 after he was chosen to compete on the six-member Team Florida if the state hosts a national competition near the end of the year.
It’s been two years since the last national competition, which Florida has hosted and funded in years past. However, lobbying efforts could make the competition, modeled after the Commissioner’s Challenge, a reality, said team co-coach Britt Moseley, an English teacher at Seminole High School. Florida senators are discussing increasing their budget to allow for the competition, which in 2011 was funded by the Florida Department of Education, along with Pinellas and Polk counties.
“Right now, the national competition is still a wait and see, but there are several of us that are going to area businesses to try to find funding,” Moseley said. “We’re not giving up. We’ve picked the teams, so we’re able to compete if we find magic funding.”
Even if they don’t get to compete nationally, members of Team Pinellas have personalized championship rings to show for their efforts.
“I’m going to wear that ring every day,” Mulligan said. “Not a whole lot of people at school recognize us; we’re kind of an underground thing. Now, we’re definitely viewed as big contenders.”
Questions at last weekend’s competition ranged from the velocity of a ball dropped off the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa to identifying interpretive artists’ works. One of the biggest challenges was learning to put egos aside and work together instead of trying to show each other up, Mulligan said.
A big part of what bonded them together was the desire to beat reigning champion Escambia County.
Since March, the team practiced once a week for two hours and twice over spring break, said team co-coach and St. Petersburg High School English teacher Tracey Keim. Pinellas beat Escambia by one question.
“When they read off the final score I could see tears in all of their eyes, and their faces were so red,” Keim said. “It shows that after all of this, they’re still teenagers. After they would answer these brilliantly tough questions in an instant, they still wanted to go to Disney and watch the fireworks. They still cried and cheered when they won.”
Mulligan said he feels hopeful about next year’s team, which will feature lots of new blood. He does have one request, though.