UIL academic team members advance to Region

Inspired state-champ teacher drives spike in participation, leads Knights to District 24-5A competition victory


Dave Winter

Science teacher and academic team coach Jace Klein verifies math contest papers during the District 24-5A Academic Meet at LBJ High School on March 25. Klein decided to commit to the McCallum academic team after competing in UIL academics as a high-schooler and believing that Knights had an opportunity to succeed in district. They proved him right by winning the district academic meet by a large margin.

Morgan Eye, co-opinion editor & co-social media managing editor

Twenty-one Knights are advancing to this Saturday’s 5A Region III academic competition after McCallum won the District 25-5A Academic Meet held at LBJ High School on March 25. 

We are really well known for fine arts and now we can say that we are also preparing our students at a really high level in academics. Plus, it’s always fun to beat LASA in academics.

— principal Nicole Griffith

To earn the overall victory, McCallum scored a total of 473.5 points, 265.5 more than runner-up LASA. McCallum also captured the district title in Journalism with 175 points. LASA was second with 56 points. 

McCallum qualified at least one individual in all 13 categories in which McCallum students participated,  and entire teams qualified to advance after McCallum finished first in number sense, science, social studies and spelling.

“It’s just really exciting,” Principal Nicole Griffith said of the team’s performance. “We are used to performing well in lots of different areas. We are really well-known for fine arts, and now we can say that we are also preparing our students at a really high level in academics. Plus, it’s always fun to beat LASA in academics.” 

UIL school coordinator Dave Winter says that in the eight years that he has been working at McCallum, there has never been this large a turnout for the district academic meet. He credits the rise in participation to science teacher Jace Klein’s dedication to recruiting students to compete in UIL academic events.

“[Mr. Klein] had checked the winning scores from last year and believed that if McCallum students put their mind to it, they could do some damage at the district UIL Academic meet and that it was in individual students’ interests because there are advantages and opportunities available if you do well at UIL,” Winter said. 

McCallum qualified at least one person for Region in every event in which it competed, and it earned team titles in journalism, number sense, science, social studies and spelling. (Morgan Eye and Alice Scott)

Klein was particularly aware of these advantages because he competed well in UIL academics when he was in high school. Klein credits his acceptance to the University of Texas to his participation in the academic competition. 

“I teach mostly seniors, and a lot of them didn’t get into UT,” Klein said. “I had a couple of them ask me, ‘What do you do [to get into UT]?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I’m pretty sure the reason why I got in was because of the extracurriculars that I did that were like UIL.’” 

During his freshman year at Lockney High School near Lockhart, Klein joined his school’s UIL team and competed in science, current issues, computer science and headline writing. As a member of the science team as a freshman, he advanced all the way to State. 

My passion for science definitely stemmed out of how competitive I was [in UIL] in high school. I took home AP Bio books just so that I could win.

— science teacher and UIL academic coach Jace Klein

“None of us placed at State,” Klein said. “We were just so happy to be there. And then my sophomore year, I put in a lot more effort into it and won district and region and then won state, which is surprising for your sophomore year.”

Klein took home first place in the state in science as an individual in his sophomore, junior and senior years. As a junior, he also placed fourth in headline writing, and as a senior, he led his school’s team to a team science championship.

“My passion for science definitely stemmed out of how competitive I was in high school,” Klein said. “I took home AP Bio books just so that I could win.” 

Now as a science teacher, Klein began recruiting students to compete in UIL Academics in order to provide them with the same opportunities he had. 

“I see some of the excitement for learning that I had when I was in high school,” Klein said. “I saw an opportunity to get students to do something more. I felt like they would be interested in doing it, and I thought that they would do well. They just needed to know that [the UIL academic competition] existed.”

Klein managed to recruit 20 students to compete in seven different divisions of the contest. Amongst those was sophomore Kalliope Haltom, who placed first in the spelling and tied for first in the number sense with a student from Crockett. 

Members of the McCallum academic team who competed in the afternoon events of the competition gather a group photo on the steps inside the entrance to LBJ High School. (Dave Winter)

“I kept thinking like there was kind of a lot of distance (13 points) between both of us [in first place] and the third-place person,” Haltom said. “And the only reason that they didn’t break the tie was because we both missed the same questions. There was no difference between our tests at all. And I keep thinking like, if he had gotten one more question right or if I had gotten one more question wrong I would have gotten second or like the other way around, I would have been first. So every time someone’s like, ‘I hear you got first in two places’ I’m like, ‘Oh no, not really.’ I could have been second. There’s really no way to know.” 

Because it was her first academic competition, Haltom didn’t expect to place at all. 

“I figured that [my scores] would be something small,” Haltom said, “but when I got first place at both, I really wasn’t expecting that, and I thought ‘I can do this. If I really wanted to I could probably place again in regionals,’ which is why I’m putting so much effort into it. If I don’t I’ll never know if I could have done better if I had.”

When I got first place at both [number sense and spelling], I really wasn’t expecting that, and I thought ‘I can do this. If I really wanted to I could probably place again in regionals.’

— sophomore Kalliope Haltom

Moving onto regionals as an individual and in a team for spelling and number sense, Haltom has set larger goals for herself. 

“I just want to place top three in both of them, so that I can move on to State,” Haltom said. “I’ve been studying a lot more than I did for District because Mr. Klein was like, ‘Don’t worry about District. There’s not going to be a lot of schools entered. It would be pretty easy to move on.’ But in Region I don’t know what the other districts do. I know that there’s a lot of high schools where this is a year-round club and kids have been studying for this all year. So I feel like I really have no idea how good my competitors will be. And I can really just hope that it’s enough to move on to State. And even if it isn’t, it’s like it’s still good practice for next year.” 

In preparation for regionals, Haltom has been studying in her spare time by spelling words from the 1,500-word spelling list provided by UIL and using practice tests from prior years for number sense. 

While Haltom is a good example of the students new to UIL this year, junior Lanie Sepehri represents a more seasoned group of competitors: the five Shield staffers who defended the district journalism title that McCallum won in 2022 and in 2021. In 2020, there was no in-person UIL competition because of the pandemic, but the Shield staff has a long history of competing well at UIL that predates Winter’s tenure as an adviser, at least as far back as the days when Rhonda Moore advised the publications.

Along with fellow junior Alice Scott, Sepehri placed in the top three of all five of her events. For Sepehri, those events were headline writing (first), copy editing (second), editorial writing (second), feature writing (second) and ready writing (third). Scott meanwhile placed first in editorial, feature, news and ready writing and second in headline writing. Sepehri said the regimen of writing events was a tiring but rewarding gauntlet.

Juniors Francie Wilhelm and Lanie Sepehri print their essays for the Ready Writing contest at the district competition. Wilhelm placed second and Sepehri earned third. (Dave Winter)

“[The tests were] really grueling at District because I didn’t have very many breaks throughout the day. I think I had one [break] and then three straight events. It was pretty emotionally taxing, especially after having to wake up so early in the morning. But it was really fulfilling and I did well in all those events, so I’m excited to give my best again.” 

At Region, Sepehri hopes to outdo her performance at District. 

“In the ones that I got third [at District] I would at least like to make second [at Region],” Sepehri said. “I’d like to do as well or better than I did last time because I think that my skills are pretty strong. But there’s always room for improvement.”

In journalism competitions, the judges provide feedback on your writing before the next competition. Sepehri plans to take their critiques seriously. 

But it is just nice to have that achievement for myself. I can prove to myself I am good in those skills.

— junior Lanie Sepehri

“I’d really like to take what [the judges] wrote to heart so I can improve. I at least just want to stay consistent [in my scores], but I could do better. That’d be nice.” 

Sepehri’s dedication to the competition stems from a desire for personal achievement. 

“Obviously it’s helpful to have those achievements on my resume,” Sepehri said. “It obviously makes me look like a strong candidate for a lot of things. But it is just nice to have that achievement for myself. I can prove to myself I am good in those skills. And also I kind of look at it as a practice for the regular newspaper. For instance, I was in kind of a slump with my newspaper stories and my writing. And then we did UIL and I was like, ‘Oh, well, if I can write a story under pressure in an hour with all these quotes, then I can totally do the stories I am currently working on in school.’” 

The academic competitors will travel west of Houston to attend the regional competition this Saturday at Foster High School in Richmond.  

Kalliope Haltom, First Place, Number Sense
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A gallery of UIL District 24-5A academic winners. Photos by JoJo Barnard, Ava Bernitz, Isley Cameron, Leah Gordon, Sophie Kessler, Emerson Merritt, Maya Tackett, Mariana Silva, Estefani Tevalan-Alvarado and Dave Winter.