Once again we are reminded that while bureaucrats and political types constantly bemoan the state of affairs of public education in Alabama and continually throw “reform efforts” against the wall and hope they stick, we have dedicated teachers and students who make us proud.

Such is the case at Opelika Middle School where teacher Corey Harris and a handful of students took part in the National Academic Championship in Orlando and came back to Lee County as national champions.  Making this even more improbable is that the team was only created last August.

Here are excerpts from the Opelika-Auburn News report about the team:

The sixth graders went 8-0 over the three days, with the final win coming against a team from Lexington, Ky. The performances of team members Zavier Dowdell, Tyler Ellis, Henry Evans, Marley Golden and Taylor Morgan left coach Corey Harris prouder than the trophy the group took home.
“They took it one match at a time and tried to do the best they could,” Harris said. “You’ve got to make a decision: are you willing to put in the work to not just become the smartest at your school, but one of the smartest kids in the nation?

“The kids we have, they took that challenge and said, ‘You know what? We’re not just going to settle for being the best in Opelika or Alabama. We’re going to work and be the best in the nation.’ They went out and proved it.”

Harris, who teaches sixth- through eighth-grade automation and robotics at Opelika Middle, grew up competing in quiz bowl and later coached at Smiths Station Junior High. He was eager to start a team at Opelika and spent the early part of the fall recruiting interested kids.

The group practiced throughout the fall before competing in its first tournaments in December.  Harris said the first match opened the eyes of the participants, who realized the Jeopardy!-style competition was much tougher than they expected.

“They have a lot of intangibles that a lot of other teams don’t,” Harris said. “They work really hard, studying not just at school but at home, and putting in many hours doing the things we do on a daily basis to improve. They don’t really complain about it. They just truly enjoy the game for what it is. They want to be better, and they want to have that success.”

Opelika found more and more success in the spring — including winning the state championship — and was invited to the National Academic Championship by the national director. The team went to nationals without Zane Sexton, one of their top scorers, but didn’t let his absence affect their efforts.

Opelika took on teams from Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia and Kentucky as well as Mobile’s St. Paul’s, and each match ended with Opelika on top. The team’s scores were the best in Orlando and were then compared with the top teams at the other regional locations in New Orleans, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Not only did Opelika have more points than the other top scorers, but the team was also the only one undefeated over the three-day tournament.

The team’s success had Harris all smiles when it was done.  “We had the trophy in hand. I said, ‘Look, this right here is something that can’t be bought with money. This is only bought with hard work, blood, sweat and tears. You deserve this for y’all’s hard work,’” Harris said. “It was awesome to see their hard work come to fruition because that’s not always necessarily the case.”

Congratulations to these students and their coach.  You make us all proud.