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Superintendent, students hit the books every day
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Ripon Unified School District Superintendent Louise Nan shares a light moment from a book the students are studying for their upcoming decathlons set for February and March. - photo by GLENN KAHL
RIPON —  Louise Nan starts every work day teaching.

You’d expect educators to do that but not necessarily the superintendent of a school district with several thousand students.

Nan instructs a Ripon High decathlon class at dawn every morning in the Ripon Unified School District board room.

She opens the door every morning at 6:45 for the faithful group of students who are focused on competing in two decathlon events in February and March.  The first is scheduled at the county level in February and the second is statewide competition.

“The Great Depression” is the theme of this year’s competition that touches on “The Dust Bowl” migration of entire families to the west in their attempt to survive.  John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Grapes of Wrath” is also being read by the students to give them a better understanding of the period.

From 1930 until about 1936 a series of intense dust storms caused serious ecological and agricultural devastation to the prairies in the U.S. and in Canada that followed an intense drought made worse by years of farming without the rotation of crops that could have prevented erosion – deep plowing of the fields had made the disaster even worse.

In the drought period of the nearly 80 years ago the soil dried out and turned to dust blowing to the east and to the south in heavy clouds.  Much of the earth went as far as the East Coast and into the Atlantic Ocean.  One hundred million acres were affected in parts of Texas, Oklahoma and portions of New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado – forcing farm families and others – hundreds of thousands of them – to move west where many could find no better jobs than picking fruit.

Nan said she is giving a video of the movie of “The Grapes of Wrath” to the students to take home where their entire family can view the film together in a family night atmosphere.  The superintendent said all of the students are doing well in school with heavy duty classes and she limits their studying the decathlon preparation subjects to the morning hour-long sessions.

Students Tuesday morning were taking short quizzes on geology that strongly relates to the dust bowl climate of the period.  One of the multiple choice questions asked students included which of the following are not found in igneous rocks: quartz, halite, pyroxene, or feldspar.

The question as to when the earth was formed was quickly answered as being 4.56 billion years ago.  Brian Newburg countered that the solar system was formed much earlier.

Nan interjected that the age of the earth is the answer the gurus of the decathlon world are looking for with their question.

  “Lithification – let’s talk about that word,” the superintendent said.  It is tied in with the dust bowl scenario.  “Lith means rock and ifiction means formation from sediment.”

Students talked about the metamorphic temperature of rocks at 700 degrees Celsius, the boiling point, where Brian Newburg interjected that the rock would no longer be a rock at that temperature, but would turn into magma.

The class also considered the outcroppings in the Great Plains where large rock shapes can be found today standing as erect sentinels – with the surrounding area having been blown away.  A second quiz of the morning was on “The History of the Ages” – another two minutes and 30 seconds designed as a teaching tool.

Students also discussed the planet Uranus with its uni-polar configuration caused by its contrasting rotation with other planets.

The four veterans in the group who participated in last year’s decathlon are Jake Turner, Brian Newburg, Brandon Patraitis and Victoria Gallup.  Others include Jamie Curtis, India Chakraverty, Maria Denhart, Megan Kuhn and Claudia Myers.

A number of the students voiced their choices of college and the majors that wish to pursue.  One of the girls displayed a serious desire to be a psychologist wanting to have the most advanced degree possible.

Another told of her desire to be a cardiologist, planning to major first in biology at the University of California at Davis.  A career in special education is the goal of another student with two of the boys voicing their desire to attend CIT and MIT for the engineering and computer fields.  Creative writing is a choice of one of the girls who hopes to attend Brown University.

RHS history teacher Mary Swier is working with the students in the history component in preparation for the spring competition.  The RHS team has an upcoming field trip to Madera.