Well before 8 a.m. Saturday, the parking areas at Tates Creek High School were overflowing, and hundreds of grade-school students, awake and alert despite the early hour, were piling into the building.
Now, you might assume that only a major sporting event could bring out 1,800 students and more than twice as many parents and other adults so early on such a nippy Saturday. But you'd be wrong.
This was the Principal's Cup, an academic challenge for elementary school students sponsored by One Community, One Voice and the Fayette County Public Schools.
Winners took home trophies and medals. But Saturday's competition also was a warm-up for the Superintendent's Cup competition in March. Members of the winning teams in that competition will receive four-year college scholarships — another reason, perhaps, for the strong adult turnout.
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"The kids love the trophies, but the parents love those scholarships," said Arnold Gaither, chairman of One Community, One Voice.
The competition is simple. Students compete in teams, usually with six members each, and Fayette County elementary schools can field as many teams as they wish. Some schools sent as many as 10 teams on Saturday.
Competition is divided into two categories: Primary for grades 1 through 3, and Intermediate for grades 4 and 5.
Teams square off in groups of as many as six kids. Volunteer adult moderators toss out prepared questions, based on subjects the kids study in school. Team members have about 30 seconds to confer before giving written answers. A correct answer is worth a point.
The team with the most points at the end of the round advances to the next round. The losing teams are out.
Competition continues round after round, until three teams are left in each category to battle it out in the finals. There is a winner in each category.
Jelayna Williams, a second-grader at Veterans Park Elementary, said she wasn't disappointed when her team was eliminated in the first round of primary competition.
"I'm going to practice and study so we can do better next time," she said.
Even so, stress levels do build as the competition continues — especially in the Superintendent's Cup, when college scholarships are at stake. Gaither said that when the competition was first held in 2006, some disappointed students broke into tears.
"I was worried that they wouldn't come back," he said. "But they all returned, and we had even more kids come out the next year. I knew then that we were really on to something."
Keiontae Jennett, 11, certainly thinks so. A fifth-grader, she's on one of the intermediate teams from Tates Creek Elementary. This is her second year in competition.
"It's exciting and fun," Keiontae said. "We meet every Thursday to practice."
Her teammate, Nathan Patterson, 11, admitted that competition "is scary sometimes and you worry about losing." Nevertheless, Nathan was confident the team was "going really far."
It takes dozens of adult volunteers to put on the competition, and they seem to enjoy it as much as the kids.
Fayette County Attorney Larry Roberts, a moderator on Saturday, said, "It was pretty cool. These kids are really smart. I couldn't answer some of the questions, and neither could the parents."
The competition's real goal is boosting academic achievement, Gaither said.
"To see grown-ups cheering these kids for answering math and science questions is a great thing," he said. "We cheer when somebody makes a three-pointer in basketball. But we also should be sending that same message about academics."
Academic Challenge Primary Competition Winners (total of 140 teams competing)
1st Place (Picadome I)
2nd Place (Southern A)
3rd Place (Rosa Parks D)
Academic Challenge Intermediate Competition Winners (104 teams competing)
1st Place (Dixie E)
2nd Place (Dixie A)