Saturday morning, the TV game show "It's Academic" will open as it has since 1961 -- with a blast of band music, this time heralding the Washington area championship match. And as usual, the competition will be dominated by teams from Montgomery County.
The three teams in this year's finals represent two public high schools in the county, Richard Montgomery and Quince Orchard, and a private school, Holton-Arms. Several other Montgomery schools also have done well on the nation's oldest school-quiz program, the result of the county's decision to support the competition as if it were a major sport, even to the point of having its own cable TV quiz show that gets players ready for "It's Academic."
"The top coaches all hold regular practices for their teams," said Kevin Keegan, the Blake High School journalism teacher who runs the cable show and often is given credit for the county's success. "The more kids practice, the better they get."
Of the 64 semifinalists, finalists and winners since 2000 on "It's Academic," 50 percent have represented Montgomery public schools. The closest public school competitor, Prince George's County, had 9 percent, followed by 6 percent from Fairfax County and 3 percent from the District.
Holton-Arms, whose 2004 team captain began attending "It's Academic" matches when she was a baby, has led private schools (12.5 percent), followed by two other private schools, St. Anselm's Abbey and Georgetown Day, both in the District (8 percent each).
The "It's Academic" formula is familiar to those who watch the show in the Washington area, as well as to celebrities such as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who in high school competed on versions of the program in Chicago and New York, respectively. The taped 30-minute program -- aired on WRC (Channel 4) at 10 a.m. Saturdays -- features three local high school teams of three members each, trying to beat each other to the buzzer and answer questions on history, art, science, mathematics and other subjects.
Each school receives a scholarship grant from sponsors Giant Food and Comcast, with the winning schools getting the most money.
Last Saturday's semifinal match between three Montgomery County public schools -- Richard Montgomery, Blake and Walter Johnson -- was not decided until the last minute on this question: " 'Countries that sign agreements should live up to those agreements.' These were the reassuring words of what man, who took over this year as Canadian prime minister?"
When Blake answered "Martins," rather than the correct last name of Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, Richard Montgomery gained an advantage it held to the final buzzer.
Montgomery's "It's Academic" success contrasts with the dearth of winners from Fairfax County, which is nearly identical to Montgomery County in size, affluence and number of high-performing schools. Fairfax had 21 public schools and one private school competing on the program this year, compared with 19 public and four private schools from Montgomery County, but no Fairfax school reached the semifinals.
Fairfax does not have its own cable TV competition. Fairfax County school officials said the contests have not been a high priority. But Fairfax County's magnet school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, teamed with a magnet school in Richmond this week to win the national Panasonic Academic Challenge contest for Virginia, beating a Keegan-coached team from Maryland.
Jefferson coach Nancy Kreloff said her team doesn't generally win "lightweight" contests such as "It's Academic." The Panasonic gives more time for in-depth answers.
Montgomery educators object when anyone suggests they should not be putting so much emphasis on a trivia contest. "I think for some kids this is as important as athletics," said Blake High School Principal Carole Goodman. "It augments their high school experience."
Montgomery School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said, "This really reflects the pride our high school teachers and principals have in showcasing the excellent talent of their students."
Jay Hepner, coach of the Quince Orchard team, said the reason for Montgomery's success can be summed up in "two words: Kevin Keegan." Keegan's job at Blake is to teach three periods of journalism and spend the rest of his time running the Quizmaster Challenge program on Channel 34, in which county schools compete in a format similar to "It's Academic."
Keegan said the county has the advantage of several top coaches who "put in many more hours than their meager stipend pays them for." The "It's Academic" excitement, he said, has helped make the Washington area successful in other competitions such as the Panasonic, won three times in the last seven years by Maryland, coached by Keegan and Michael Kravitz; twice by Virginia; and once by the District.
Howard High School in Howard County has done very well in the Baltimore version of "It's Academic." It has won a regional playoff twice in four years.
Laurie Tupper, captain of the Holton-Arms team, said she got involved in the contest "essentially in utero," since her mother, Ellie, often helped her father, Bob, the Holton-Arms coach. When he told her in high school that she didn't have to join the team if she didn't want to, she said, "Dad, if I weren't your daughter, would you be trying to get me to join the team?"
"I'd be recruiting you pretty intensely," he said.
"So there you have it," she said.