Members of the Oak Hill High School Academic Decathlon team surround their teacher, Derek Anderson, middle, Monday in their classroom at the Wales high school. From left are Josh Bonner, Kaiden Delano, Sarah Rossignol, Jacob Reid, Olivia French, Sebastian Doyle, Nhi Nguyen, Nathan Dillman, Anderson, Colton Davis, Sophie Spencer, Ella Martin and Sutton Sloan. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

WALES — Oak Hill High School’s decathlon team held its own against larger schools in its competition division, securing second place at the national competition in Pennsylvania this year.

The team, coming from a school of roughly 400 students, was competing against many private schools and other high schools with larger student bodies. Divisions are based on student population of the school and Academic Decathlon coach Derek Anderson believes Oak Hill was the smallest school in its division.

Oak Hill, part of Regional School Unit 4, draws students from Litchfield, Sabattus and Wales. The national competition was held April 25-27 in Pittsburgh.

A decathlon is an academic competition in which students are tested in 10 different event categories — such as math, science, social science, speech, along with others — based on one theme. Teams are given a packet of material ahead of the competition and spend time learning it. Individual competitors, who can also win medals, earn points for the team in the events and the top scoring team wins.

Nathan Dillman, left, and Derek Anderson talk during a class Monday morning at Oak Hill High School in Wales. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

The Oak Hill team is most consistently strong in the art and social sciences categories, Anderson said. Math is an area where the team usually needs to spend a little extra time, so he recruits some of the high school’s math educators to help.

For the last three years, the school has won the state decathlon competition and last year it placed fourth in its division at nationals. So the team’s goal this year was to at least gain third place at the national competition, according to senior Sebastian Doyle, 17.


Though the Wales resident was not one of the nine competing team members this year, he went to support those in the competition, Doyle said. It became tense when winners were being announced and students did not hear their school’s name called for fourth or third place.

“Once we heard that third wasn’t us, we were all really let down because we were really hoping to get third because last year we got fourth so we wanted to be one step up,” he said. “And for me, I was just like ‘you know, let’s just remain hopeful, there’s still second.’”

When their second-place finish was announced, team members were shocked, according to senior Nhi Nguyen, 18. She was in doubt at first, then she felt happy.

“I stood up, dazed, and my brain made me walk to the stage but I was not there,” she said. “I was really shocked and really happy.”

Decathlon is a class, not just a team, that students can earn elective credits through. They can also take it for multiple years and Anderson, a social studies teacher, is the instructor.

Nhi Nguyen, a student and member of the Oak Hill High School Academic Decathalon Team, talks Monday morning about the competition at the high school in Wales. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Anderson, who has coached the team for the last eight years, has helped build it into a national contender, but he attributes its success to the students who work hard and put in a lot of effort. He has watched some students grow skills they struggled with initially to become medal-winning competitors.


When Doyle first joined the team his sophomore year, he was a very nervous public speaker who sometimes could not deliver full speeches in front of fellow decathlon team members, he said. He worked hard that year to improve his skill and when the team went to the national competition that year, he won a gold medal in the speech category.

He felt a lot of pressure to do well in that category, as the schools at the national competition are the best in their states, so it is a different level of competition, he said.

“Everyone had to win their state competition to be there so it’s like the best of the best that’s there,” he said, describing the pressure as “tenfold.”

Anderson particularly enjoys coaching students through the speech category because an ability to speak, whether prepared or unprepared, in front of people results in increased confidence, better reasoning and improved problem-solving skills, he said.

It can be hard for teens to take risks in front of their peers but he thinks letting students experience some anxiety is healthy and they can learn to become better from it, he said. They usually feel better after the speech category at competition.

Nguyen did not get any medals in the categories she thought she would at last year’s national competition, she said. Going into the national competition this year she did not have high hopes but she tried her best anyway and received two third-place medals in two different science-related categories, her favorite subject.


Some of the past trophies that the Oak Hill Academic Decathlon team has won are displayed in Derek Anderson’s classroom at the high school in Wales. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

The decathlon class, which she has taken every year since she was a sophomore, is an opportunity for her to learn new things, as she enjoys learning, she said. She has found herself studying subjects she would not have otherwise thought twice about — like water.

She spends the three days before competitions studying — pushing aside all other extracurricular activities, she said.

She said she has gained numerous skills being part of this competition, which all helped her secure a spot at Rhode Island’s Brown University, an Ivy League school, starting in the fall. Some of those skills include studying, testing and managing time, along with an appreciation for teamwork.

“I don’t just learn on my own in this class, even though it’s a very self-study class, I learn with the help of my friends, with the help of my teammates,” she said. “I think it taught me to study but to study with a teammate, appreciate that process of studying with someone else, definitely.”

Doyle plans to stay closer to home and attend Thomas College in the fall with the goal to become a Maine Game Warden — hopefully posted somewhere in northern Maine.

Posters, photos and other interesting items adorn every wall in Derek Anderson’s classroom at Oak Hill High School in Wales. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

As a class that is available to all grade levels, the upperclassmen in the class are often an example for underclassmen, showing them what it takes to be successful, Anderson said.

Anderson sees student confidence and success increase over time as they take the decathlon class, translating into a belief that Oak Hill students can go on to be successful in college and that acceptance at even an Ivy League school is attainable, he said.

“I hope it shows that if you want to be really successful coming from Oak Hill, you can be,” he said. “… In terms of this class, it’s been my goal to offer something really enriching for our top students and I think it’s succeeding in doing that. It’s also giving kids those opportunities to look to competitive schools and really look beyond their four years here to something they can be really successful at.”

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