RACINE — They’re sagacious, sharp-witted and now, ecstatic: Catholic middle school students from St. Matthew, Oak Creek and St. Edward, Racine won the annual Scholastic Challenge, edging teams from 12 area Catholic schools. Winning team members take home a trophy, ribbons, medals and scholarships to St. Catherine High School in Racine or St. Joseph Academy in Kenosha.
The challenge is a local opportunity for students wanting to participate in a battle of the minds, but unable to fly to southern California to participate in a taping of “Jeopardy!”
Culminating its 23rd year, the 72 middle school students met six evenings in February at St. John Nepomuk’s Macek Hall to test what they have learned throughout the years.
Organized by Paul Steimle, the academic competition pits two teams of five or six students against one another to see who can answer the most questions correctly.
Each player is equipped with a buzzer in a lockout system, much like “Jeopardy!” Whoever buzzes in first gets to answer the question; each student is allowed five seconds to begin his or her answer. Music is piped in the background while teams discuss answers, but unlike the Hollywood version, this competition uses a variety of music.
“We play a different song each night,” laughed Steimle. “With 36 matches going, no one wants to hear the “Jeopardy!” music that many times, so I rotate the music so it doesn’t get boring.”
Questions cover math, science, spelling, social studies, general knowledge, religion, visual, language, literature, dates and amendments.
“I have a database of about 20,000 questions to run this event and this past year added about 800 questions to the database,” said Steimle, St. John Nepomuk parishioner and We Energies internal auditor. “But out of all the categories, the religion category is most difficult to come up with questions. Some of the topics are too advanced, so I subscribe to some publications and find trivia books on religion to come up with age-appropriate questions for the students.”
In its heyday, students from 21 Catholic schools from Racine, Milwaukee, Kenosha, Oak Creek, Sturtevant, Caledonia, South Milwaukee, Kansasville and Burlington participated in one of three divisions based on school size and past participation.
“We have had so many schools close that now we are down to 12 participating in two divisions. The schools are from Racine, Oak Creek, South Milwaukee, Kenosha and Milwaukee,” explained Steimle, “We have four students playing at a time in each match, and no more than two of those students can be eighth graders in order to make it fair to all teams.”
As a Scholastic Challenge team advisor for the past 15 years, John Keane, eighth grade teacher at St. Matthew School, Oak Creek, is pleased that students can be recognized for their academic prowess.
“Too often it is the ‘jocks’ who are honored for their skills in volleyball, basketball, soccer, etc., and it’s great to see these young people challenged by questions covering a wide range of subjects,” he said. “At St. Matthew, the middle school teachers get together and invite the students to be part of the team. It is considered a great honor. I have seen students gain in confidence because of their participation.”
While teachers are not allowed to prepare students in any way for the challenge, Keane has watched with pride as he witnessed students giving up recess time to quiz each other on a variety of topics.
“Our parents are also very proud of their children’s participation,” he said. “In fact, it seems that sometimes the parents seem to be more excited than the students. I believe that this is a great program and I am proud to take our team every year, win or lose. It’s a great experience for the students.”
As parents of an eighth grade student in Keane’s class, Michael and Nancy Schroeder appreciate the forum that allows their children to challenge themselves and their classmates academically beyond the classroom setting.
“It is one of the only middle school events that I am aware of which creates a team atmosphere in an academic competition, as opposed to spelling and geography bees that are individual competitions,” said Nancy. “The students are encouraged to listen, support, speak up, and rely on their team members to answer difficult questions and problems.”
Additionally, the Schroeders said that bringing the excitement of a team event into the academic arena is motivation to go beyond their everyday work to study and learn.
“Without this avenue to learn things that they think might be asked, they may have passed by these areas in their middle school careers,” said Nancy.
Stacy Sims, mother of seventh grader, Emma, agreed.
“I was impressed by the dedication of the students on our team who gave up their free time at school to study. I was impressed with the pride that the participants took in their academic knowledge when at this stage in their lives it’s not always seen as cool,” she explained. “I was impressed with the wide range of knowledge and good sportsmanship displayed by all of the participating teams. To me, the Scholastic Challenge symbolized the reason we send our children to a Catholic school – to give them a solid academic foundation that emphasizes Christian values.”
The parish and school support make all the planning worth it for Steimle, who generally spends approximately 200 hours organizing and promoting the Scholastic Challenge. His wife Pat, a dental hygienist at the Racine Dental Group, helps run the event.
“I think it is a great way to give students recognition for their academic accomplishments and to promote Catholic education in the community,” he said. “It is a lot of work, but I see the students and hear so many comments from others who are watching and that is satisfaction enough. We have a great team of 72 volunteers to make this happen and we are looking forward to our 25th anniversary.”
With three of her four children competing in the Scholastic Challenge, Susan Margraff is grateful to Steimle for keeping the challenge going, especially since St. John Nepomuk School is no longer open.
“This amazing competition challenges young people to do their best,” she said. “It started with our daughter Cecilia, who is a senior at St. Thomas More, (when) she competed and was even part of a championship team. One time we were fortunate enough to have two of our children compete at the same time,” she said, expressing her thanks to the parish, Steimle and the team coaches.
As principal of St. Matthew, Julianna Barber is proud of her winning team and its coach.
“I also want to thank St. John Nepomuk Parish for sponsoring this contest. When the Racine Catholic schools began to merge, the Scholastic Challenge could have fallen by the wayside,” she said. “But the members of St. John Nepomuk sought to keep this worthy competition alive. In an age where athletic competitions receive so much attention, it is inspiring to see teams of students so excited to be competing academically.”