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Oak Park High Puts Foes on Notice for '99 Academic Decathlon

Competition: Officials hope to revive team, build time into students' schedules to prepare for county's yearly scholastic contest.

January 19, 1998|LISA FERNANDEZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OAK PARK — It got to be too much.

Members of Oak Park High School's Academic Decathlon team were spending every free moment cramming their heads with facts about Greek mythology and the finer points of calculus.

Even with lunch breaks and late-night study sessions, there just wasn't enough time. So the team disbanded in the 1980s.

But the desire to bash brains with the best never died at Oak Park High. Beginning this fall, the school plans to reenter the competition--and, this time, officials hope to give students study time built into their class schedules.

The Academic Decathlon--a test of skill in 10 scholastic categories--was started by an Orange County superintendent in 1968. The competition went national in 1981 and Ventura County joined one year later. Competitors are divided into three levels according to their grade-point averages.

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This year, 13 schools in the county are competing in the event, held over two days. The first part of the decathlon, in which students gave speeches, answered essay questions and were interviewed by a panel of judges, was Jan. 10. The competition will end Feb. 7 with the Super Quiz.

While students at Oak Park High will be on the sidelines this year, watching the competition to prepare, they have high hopes of being contenders next year.

Oak Park High's scheduling system is changing next year from two-hour blocks to shorter class periods, which will pave the way for a gamut of new, creative electives.

A course created for the Academic Decathlon is likely to be one of those electives, said history teacher Jim Johnson, who coached the team more than a decade ago. In addition to poring over books, Academic Decathlon students will hear lectures from experts, take field trips to musical performances and may also study mock-trial skills.

Other electives being offered under the new schedule may include film as literature and contemporary world affairs.

Johnson said the elective class during the school day is going to be a tremendous help in getting the team going again. It might even help them win.

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"We had bright kids," Johnson said, referring to teams in the 1980s where individual students fared well although the entire group never placed very high. "But without a class, we couldn't be competitive."

With encouragement by the movers and shakers in the Oak Park Unified School District, the idea of reviving the school's Academic Decathlon team came largely from sophomore Nick Rodriguez.

He first thought of bringing the team back after seeing a television news program about a winning Academic Decathlon team in Utah.

"I thought, 'Wouldn't that be great if we did that?' " Nick said.

Using the Internet, Nick found the United States Academic Decathlon web site and related links, giving him background and a connection to other schools that had put together similar programs.

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He brought his proposal to his high school counselor, Randy McLelland, who in turn ran the idea around to the right people: Principal Millie Andress, Supt. Marilyn Lippiatt and the school board.

But trustee Jim Kalember was already primed. He has been advocating such a program for years, as his son had also tried--unsuccessfully--last year to get a team going.

"This is so exciting because it will help build up resumes for college," said Kalember, whose son is now a freshman at Stanford University. "These non-athletic extracurricular activities are so important for students to compete for the best universities. They help round out options for kids in the open marketplace."

Nick helped gather about 40 interested students and held a lunchtime meeting with district and school leaders in December.

He plans to hold another meeting Jan. 30 to finalize support for the new class and team.

"A lot of students are dying to excel," said Nick, who is a straight-A student, participates in ballroom dancing, plays piano, performs in the drama club, runs cross country and volunteers for the DARE program.

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Teachers realize that some may criticize the Trivial Pursuit-like quality of the competition. But they answer that there is more to it than that.

"Yes, there is a lot of memorization," Johnson said. "But they've got to know their math and science. They've got to be good students."

And there is another benefit: team spirit.

"The kids pull together like an athletic team," Johnson said. "We're even going to have a booster club."

Science teacher Dave Nelson, who plans to co-coach the team with Johnson, also compared the advantages of the academic team to an athletic one.

"Kids enjoy sports," he said. "And they often think of education as drudgery. But an Academic Decathlon team would allow them to be honored for their intellect."

Both teachers also said the competition is a good way to include lower-achieving students in the academic exercise. A student who doesn't have a high GPA but is an excellent orator, for example, would be an asset to the team, he said.

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