Hillcrest Elementary students gear up for Black Saga regional competition

James Roberson, left, 10, Phoebe Rosenbloom, bottom, 9, Lydia Lesnevich, 11, Meg Schumacher, 11, Lilly Queeney, 10 and Sara Baunoch, right, 11, hold the 2014 Black Saga statewide competition award the Hillcrest Elementary School team won. The annual Black Saga competition begins this week.
James Roberson, left, 10, Phoebe Rosenbloom, bottom, 9, Lydia Lesnevich, 11, Meg Schumacher, 11, Lilly Queeney, 10 and Sara Baunoch, right, 11, hold the 2014 Black Saga statewide competition award the Hillcrest Elementary School team won. The annual Black Saga competition begins this week. (Jen Rynda, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Practice makes perfect, and in the case of Hillcrest Elementary School's competition team for the annual Black Saga Competition, the saying rings true.

Last year, a team from Hillcrest became the school's first to win the statewide Black Saga competition. Teams from the school have also won three countywide competitions since 2011.


This year, Hillcrest will compete with 10 other elementary schools, including Westchester Elementary, on Wednesday, Feb. 11, at Golden Ring Middle School, in the defense of their regional and state championship titles.

Students in the school's Black Saga club spend hours studying each week to prepare for the annual competition, which tests students' knowledge of the African-American experience.

This year's regional competition in Baltimore County was scheduled to kick off earlier this week at Dumbarton Middle School, where 11 elementary schools, includingWoodbridge Elementary, were to compete.

Seven middle schools, including Catonsville, are scheduled to compete on Thursday, Feb. 5 at Randallstown High School.

The winner of each regional competition, plus a number of high-scoring wild cards, tototal 10 elementary and five middle schools, will go on to the county finals on Saturday, Feb. 21 at New Town High, according to a Baltimore County Public Schools press release. Schools do not have to win the countywide or regional competitions to take part in the statewide competition.

"It's pretty amazing, the time and effort that they're willing to put in," said coach Lisa Black, 52, an art teacher at Hillcrest, who is in her fifth year coaching the team.

Students meet once a week after school with Black, who has lived in Catonsville for 20 years and taught at the school for 24.

She holds mock competitions and jeopardy games to prepare the teams of fourth- and fifth-grade students.

"I know how much time and effort it takes because I did it with my daughter," Black said, whose daughter, Rory, is now a freshman at Catonsville High. "I warn them before how much work it is."

Black said she volunteered to coach the team when her daughter, who joined the club as a fourth-grader, wanted to continue in fifth grade. No teachers at the school volunteered, so she did.

Students at the school have won either first or second place each year in the countywide competition since Black began coaching students five years ago.

Her first year coaching was the first time they won the county competition, Black said.

That 2011 championship was followed by first-place finishes in the 2012 and 2013 county competitions. Hillcrest teams finished second and tied for third last year.

Plaques on a wall near the entrance of the school, located at 1500 Frederick Road in Catonsville, show the tradition of success at the school.


Last year, the team of Lilly Queeney, Meg Schumacher and Sara Baunoch placed first in the statewide competition as fourth-graders.

Lilly, 10, of Catonsville, called the competition "nervewracking and exciting."

"Last year, we had to study a lot and I got a lot of help from my mom," Lilly said. "Just from studying with me, she knew all the answers."

Black said the students who perform the best usually receive study help from their parents.

Students who either don't have the time to put in or don't want to put in the effort will drop out. A quiz administered to students before they join the club usually deters those kids, Black said.

"This is a competition. They know they have got to earn their spot," Black said.

"But I think that if you ask any of the kids, even though it is a lot of work, they enjoy it, because it's a lot of fun," Black said.

It's also rewarding.

"At the end of competitions when you win, all the hard work pays off," Black said.

As the competition nears, 11 fourth and fifth graders in the school's Black Saga club are studying facts related to African-American history.

Students who perform the best in the club will move on to represent the school in the annual competition. They are split up into three teams, each with three students.

"They end up competing against each other in the regional competition," Black said, adding that only three students on one team progress to the state competition.

Beyond the competition, students improve their knowledge of American history, Black said.

"What the students are learning is valuable in terms of the history of our country," she said.

Those facts include ones about local history in Baltimore County, for example, how Rolling Road received its name, she said.

Sara, 11, of Catonsville, said questions about baseball players were hard to study.

"They asked me a question about baseball players and I was really nervous because I didn't know if I was going to get it right," said Sara, who admits she doesn't know much about baseball players. "But I got it right."

Black said her secret to leading a winning team each year is keeping everything organized for her students.

"I think one of the biggest things is giving them a schedule so they know what they're responsible for, " Black said. "It keeps them on track so they don't get overwhelmed, because it is a huge amount of information."

Charles Christian, author of "Black Saga: The African-American Experience," started the competition as a way to challenge students to learn how all races and cultures have played a part in American history, according to a 2005 press release from Baltimore County Public Schools.

Baltimore County schools have been taking part in the annual competition since the 2003-2004 school year, according to the release.

The 800 facts that students are tested on in the competition, according to county information, are divided into three sections.

Each student is assigned a section to study, Black said.

Having students who participated in the competition as four graders come back in fifth grade also helps, Black said.

"It really pumps up the other kids and makes them excited," Black said.

Lydia Lesnevich, 11, in fifth grade, competed in the competition last year.

"We ran out of time before we took the test last year," Lydia said, who felt like her time studying had been wasted.

"This year, I'm determined to beat everyone, because after middle school you don't have a chance," said Lydia, whose older sister Emma was part of winning teams at Hillcrest and Sudbrook.

Lilly explained that it's hard to make time to study for the competition in middle school, because of all the extracurricular activities and homework.

"If you do Black Saga in middle school it's not as big of a thing," Lilly said. "For us, we try to study as much as possible, but for them, they don't have as much time."

Fifth-grader Nathan Pittroff, 10, whose team tied West Towson for third in the countywide competition last year, predicts that at least two of Hillcrest's teams will again place in the county competition this year.

Black also expects that her students will do well again this year.


"I think they're going to win," she said.