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Support Base Credited for El Camino Team's Success

Competition: Strong community backing, spirit of cooperation help fuel high school's string of Academic Decathlon victories.


WOODLAND HILLS — El Camino Real High School, a powerhouse in the Los Angeles Unified School District's Academic Decathlon competition, achieved its unprecedented string of six consecutive city titles with the aid of widespread community support, said the team's two head coaches.

After winning this year's competition, El Camino's nine academic decathletes head to the state games March 16-18 in Los Angeles for a chance to make the nationals the following month in Anchorage.

The LAUSD will be represented by six other high schools that qualified for at-large positions: Marshall, Garfield, Los Angeles, Palisades Charter, North Hollywood and San Pedro.

"It's the best program," said teacher Sharon Markenson, one of El Camino's former head coaches and a current assistant coach. "Talent comes and goes. It's a program that's stable. I doubt you can find another school in the state, maybe the nation, that has this kind of program. Every element of the community is involved."

Coach Melinda Owen said strangers congratulate her on the street for the team's victory. Some parents move to the high school's attendance area just to send their children to El Camino to try out for the Academic Decathlon team, she said.

Parents bake cookies, cook meals and help in various ways that allow the decathletes to be even more productive, said English teacher Shukla Sarkar, who helps Owen and Coach Christian Cerone.

Owen and Cerone, both English instructors, receive coaching help from colleagues who have more expertise in subjects such as music, science, math and art.

"Teamwork. That's our secret," Sarkar said. "The coaches get people from different disciplines with different expertise. We work for the team as a team."

In the Academic Decathlon, teams of high school students are questioned on such topics as economics, art, music, language and literature, mathematics, science and social science.

Just three years before El Camino won its first district title in 1989, the team finished 31st among a field of 55 schools, said former head coach Mark Johnson, considered the father of the school's Academic Decathlon program. He took over as coach in 1987, when he began to lay the foundation for what has become a district dynasty.

"Marshall had just won the nationals in 1986," Johnson recalled. "I said the kids at Marshall are no different than the kids at El Camino."

He began recruiting some of the school's best students and teachers to join the team, which finished third in the district in 1987, his first year as coach.

"I had no idea 14 years later we'd have eight city championships," he said.

El Camino also has won four state titles and a national championship. Officials say each success paves the way for the next. Students and staff on this year's squad say fear of ending the streak motivates them to win again.

"When we came on, there was already a streak of four [city titles] in a row," Owen said. "I don't mind the pressure. I'm a very competitive person. I play to win." The pressure spread to the 14 or so assistant coaches as well, Johnson said.

Getting so many people involved is the key to El Camino's success, according to team coaches and competitors. Support and assistance from such a large base of people increases El Camino's chances, said Phil Chase, who has coached Marshall's academic decathlon team for nine years.

"They probably have a larger group of people that work with the students," Chase said. "That's probably one of the reasons they do well. Many of the teachers there are used to participating and that's part of their routine."

About five Marshall teachers regularly help their decathletes, he said. The team's strong performances--Marshall finished second in the district this year--result from the students' quest for knowledge, Chase said.

John Bennett, who has coached Garfield's team since 1983, said he has trouble attracting even a quarter of the approximately 40 students who try out for the El Camino team every year.

"They have a larger pool of kids to draw from than we do in terms of kids who can do this kind of competition," Bennett said. "We have a large student population, but the number of kids that have the academic skill necessary to compete aren't that many. They have potential, but they don't have the skills coming in, often."

El Camino teachers help out by making classroom assignment deadlines flexible for decathletes. They pitch in by substituting for teachers who need time away from their regular classes to assist decathletes. The process creates a sense of camaraderie, said team member Alan Wittenberg, an 18-year-old senior.

"I'm closer to these people than family members," Wittenberg said.

Because of those relationships, the team strives to do its best and not disappoint fellow students, decathletes said.

"This year's class of 2001 is a really good class," said team member Ryan Ruby, a 17-year-old senior. "We're just trying to best represent that class."

The other El Camino decathletes, all seniors, are Aria Haghighi, 18; Dennis Kuo, 18; Samantha Henry, 17; Scott Lulovics, 18; Grace Giles, 18; Walter Ching, 18; and Elan Bar, 17.

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