In 1968, Dr. Robert Peterson, then superintendent of Orange County Schools in California, developed an academic competition different from others that existed at that time. Dr. Peterson had three main goals for his program: 1. Diversity of subject matter; 2. Opportunity for lower-achieving students to participate; and 3. Communication skills events. The program was known as the Academic Decathlon of Orange County. In 1978 the program was adopted statewide in California and, in 1981-82, the United States Academic Decathlon (USAD) was born, taking the program nationwide. The Idaho Academic Decathlon (IAD) was formed during the 1984-85 school year, the first year of participation for Idaho schools. Dr. David Steadman, Bureau Chief at the Idaho State Department of Education at the time, was the first Executive Director, serving from 1984-1988. Jerry Helgeson became director in March 1988 and remained in that position until the summer of 2015 when Mary Bird, former coach at Sandpoint HS, replaced him. Mr. Helgeson remains on the IAD Board of Directors as its treasurer.
Meridian High School won the first ever IAD state competition in March 1985 and competed as the Idaho representative at the USAD National Finals at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. In its first year of competing, the Idaho team finished 13th out of 39 state champions. It was a tremendous success for the team, as well as for Idaho, and the IAD program has maintained a high level of achievement for the past 32 years. In 2007, Centennial finished in 8th place, the highest finish for any Idaho team.
The Idaho Academic Decathlon became a nonprofit corporation during the 1989-90 academic year. This allowed Idaho the opportunity to host the USAD National Finals in April 1992. It was the largest national meet ever held, with 49 teams competing in Boise. How fitting it was that Boise High School finished tenth in the nation that year, the highest finish ever by an Idaho team up to that point. That success led to Idaho hosting the USAD National Finals again in April 2004. Since 2004 was the kickoff year of Bicentennial of the Lewis & Clark Journey across America, the theme topic for 2003-2004 was that famous expedition. Some of our events at the Nationals included individuals portraying Sacajawea, Captain Clark, and Captain Lewis. It was a very special time for the Academic Decathlon, having descendents of Sacajawea as participants in several events of the Nationals that year.
The move into nonprofit status also allowed the program to expand its funding base through annual fund-raising efforts. Funding support from Idaho corporations, businesses and individuals has allowed the IAD to operate yearly and to award scholarships to individual winners at the state competitions. The need for fundraising continues to grow as we anticipate the program expanding. More than 13,000 students have participated in IAD competitions during the past 32 years and over 500 individuals have earned scholarships for their Academic Decathlon achievements. Many individual competitors have also been awarded scholarships by colleges and universities based, in part, on their participation and success in this program.
Idaho schools that have represented our state in the USAD Nationals during that past 32 years are Meridian, Moscow, Burley, Jerome, Blackfoot, Centennial, Boise, Renaissance, Sugar-Salem, and Sandpoint.
Most national champions come from the large school category. The medium and small schools felt left out. Beginning in 2006, USAD began an online national competition for the champions in the other school size divisions. In 2009, Sandpoint won the national medium school sized category. Medals, trophies, and scholarships can be earned in the online competition.
The Idaho Academic Decathlon remains strong and sets it sights on a goal of doubling the number of Idaho’s high schools participating in the next two years.