Members of the brainy team that John Marshall High School sent to Los Angeles' fifth annual Academic Decathlon have been getting the star treatment on campus ever since it was announced over the school's intercom Friday--to wild cheers and applause--that the team won first place.
"Every class I went into, I got a standing ovation," Greg Mitchell, a senior at the Los Feliz-Silver Lake high school, said of his not-so-typical day at school Friday. Teammate and fellow senior Fred Upton got the same treatment, plus "high five" hand slaps in the hallways and congratulations "all over the place," he happily recalled.
The team's coach, English teacher Mary Sortino, received her share of glory, too, when she walked into the faculty dining room and her colleagues broke into applause. "Everybody was so excited," she said.
Better Than Football Victory
Marshall High Principal Don Hahn said everybody at the school has been "flying high" because of the team's victory over 52 other high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District at the citywide scholastic contest earlier this month. "It's much more exciting to me than winning a football championship. It's more meaningful," he said.
Besides the spontaneous congratulations, the team was honored this week at a special gathering of the faculty. A reception is planned for Wednesday, and representatives of the mayor's office, Councilman Michael Woo, school board members and other school district officials are expected to attend.
The team, however, won't have time to rest on its laurels. Its six members, along with an alternate, are preparing for the state championship contest Jan. 3 at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana. There, 44 schools are expected to compete for the chance to go on to national competition.
The decathlon consists of team members spending a day taking written tests in six subjects. They also give two speeches each, one prepared and the other extemporaneous, and are interviewed about themselves and their activities. They also must write an essay and participate as a team in a "super quiz," in which members answer questions in turn. The last event, whose subject this year was U.S. immigration, is public.
Teams represent a range of grade averages. They also must reflect the racial and sexual ratios at their schools.
Points are tallied and announced about a week after the daylong competition.
Beverly Hills High School won the state contest the past two years and placed second nationally, both times behind Richardson High School in Texas. This week, Beverly Hills began its climb again, winning the countywide contest for schools outside the Los Angeles Unified School District.
La Canada Flintridge High School placed fourth in the county competition.
As in the local contests, the teams in the state and national tournaments will be made up of two A students, two B students and two C students. Team members are chosen on the basis of test scores, such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and teacher recommendations. All of Marshall's competitors are seniors and include four who have gone as far as the semifinals in the selection for the prestigious National Merit Scholarship.
For Marshall High, the victory in the Academic Decathlon is especially sweet. The school's best showing in previous contests was last year, when it came in eighth. The best it had done before that was 12th, said Sortino, who has been team coach for two years.
Marshall scores consistently high in SAT and Advanced Placement tests and already enjoys a good reputation for its academic program. But it hadn't been touted as one of the teams most likely to unseat Palisades High School in Pacific Palisades, the citywide gold medalist in all four other years since the contest began.
The Marshall team figured that it could make the top 10 again but that it had only an outside shot of climbing into the top five, "if we were lucky," said team member Eun Joo Whang.
That prediction was way off the mark. Besides putting in a gold-medal performance in the overall competition, the team racked up four first-place finishes, in fine arts, language and literature, math, and science. It scored second in the economics and speech-making competitions.
"We broke the monopoly," said Fred, who ranked third among all 318 contestants. He also won five individual medals in the B division: a gold for highest overall score, two more golds in math and science and two bronze medals in economics and essay writing.
Although all team members are given the same tests, prizes are also awarded to individuals in each of the three grade categories.
"I knew I'd do well in math and science," Fred said. "I had no idea about economics and the essay, and I never dreamed I'd win overall."