At high school campuses across the Los Angeles school district this week, war has been declared.
But this is intellectual warfare, subjecting the pride and brains of 53 schools to the grueling annual battle of mental agility known as the Academic Decathlon.
In preparation for the all-day contest on Saturday at Grant High School in Van Nuys, small bands of students have been huddled for weeks over thick books and reams of notes, plotting strategy and losing sleep. Fifty-two of the schools have their sights set on toppling Marshall High School in the Los Feliz area, the district champion for the last two years that gave Los Angeles its first national decathlon victory last April.
Marshall, an ethnically and socio-economically mixed school, attracted national attention because decathlon championships had been dominated by schools from affluent, mostly white areas.
The defending champion is fielding a completely new team this year, however, and also has new coaches. David Tokofsky, the intensely devoted social studies teacher who coached his six-member decathlon squad to national triumph, gave up the assignment this fall, mostly out of exhaustion.
As a result, the team got a late start on studying for this year's event. Although several Marshall players expressed confidence, their closest rivals have cause to hope for an upset.
"We've got more of a chance because (Tokofsky) isn't around this year," said Jason Douglas, 17, of University High School, after an early morning cram session with his teammates Wednesday at the West Los Angeles campus.
University, which has been among the top five in the district finals every year since 1982, is hungry for a win, but no more so than Taft in Woodland Hills, Palisades or North Hollywood. Taft jumped from fifth to second place last year, while Palisades, a four-time champion, came in fourth. North Hollywood has been among the top five schools in five of the last six years.
"I think Taft is going to be tough," said Palisades English teacher Rose Gilbert, who has coached for seven years.
Unlike some of the top contenders, including Palisades, Taft's team started studying over the summer and also scrimmaged with other decathlon teams.
"Anyone who hasn't won before," Gilbert said, "is tough."
The academic decathlon, created by an Orange County educator in 1968, became a statewide competition in 1979 and national in 1982. The Los Angeles district has held the event annually since 1981.
On Saturday, 15 districts and county education departments are holding local competitions, including the office of the Los Angeles superintendent of schools, which will host 67 teams from 36 Los Angeles County districts at West High School in Torrance.
District and county winners will go on to the state decathlon March 11-14 in Sacramento. The national finals will be held April 29-May 2 in San Antonio, Tex.
The decathlon consists of 10 events, including written examinations in economics, mathematics, science, fine arts, social science and literature; an oral interview; a speech, and an essay.
Capping the contest is the Super Quiz, considered the premier event because it is the only portion of the competition open to the public. Reminiscent of the "College Bowl" television show of the 1950s and 1960s, it consists of 48 questions about a particular theme. This year's topic is the history of aviation. Players have six seconds to answer each question.
According to national decathlon rules, each team must consist of two A, two B and two C students. Coaches examine students' records, searching through SAT test scores and report cards for the most academically talented students in each grade category. After establishing scholastic standing, the coaches then rely on teacher recommendations and their own intuition to determine which students have the commitment and the emotional fortitude necessary to compete.
At Dorsey, a predominantly black mid-city school that has won more Super Quiz championships than any other district school, but has never captured the overall title, 100 students tried out for the team. Veteran decathlon coach Dan Spetner, who taught at a different school last year, returned to Dorsey this fall, determined to help the team bring home more trophies.
A few nights ago, in the classroom dubbed the "Torture Chamber," he was quizzing his team on French philosophers. Then it was on to dialectical materialism, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. At 8:30 p.m., the six team members had been studying for six hours and had at least another two hours to go before going home and studying some more.