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No. 1 School Weeding Its Brains Out


Who wants to be an academic decathlete? About 70 students at El Camino Real High School, where the luster of the school's victory in the U.S. Academic Decathlon attracted double the usual number of hopefuls Tuesday to tryouts for next year's team.

"It's like a cool thing now," said Grace Giles, 18, a member of the all-senior championship squad. "It's like a trend, almost."

On Tuesday, Giles and some of her teammates took great pleasure in supervising a difficult mathematics exam for students who hope to be among the nine chosen to defend El Camino's national title in 2002. So many showed up for the test during lunch period that they and their enormous calculators had to be split between two classrooms.

"People have been telling me to join," junior Daren Battaglia said. After the math test, however, he wondered whether they were leading him on. "I've never been that great in math," Daren said.

"It's all this stuff that I don't remember from the last year or the year before," said Jay Slaten, a junior.

On the 25-question math test, the first in a battery of tryout exams, two students topped the list with 19 correct answers each. One student got only two right.

"That's why I give it first," said coach Melinda Owen. "The faint of heart--well, they'll scurry."

That is not to say that scoring 8% in math would keep a student off the team. Elan Bar, one of this year's champions, notched only four right answers in math when he tried out, Owen said.

The multiple-choice test taken Tuesday featured such questions as: How many ways can four people seat themselves in a seven-passenger car if the driver's seat must always be occupied?

Answer: 480.

Owen and fellow coach Christian Cerone already have their eyes on a few candidates for next year's team. They will enter the test scores of everyone who tried out into a spreadsheet, combine it with their grades and standardized test scores and talk to El Camino's faculty to identify the right mix for the 10-event academic competition. The Woodland Hills school won the national competition last month for the second time in four years.

"A lot of the teachers are veterans here and they know what 'Deca's' about," Cerone said.

It is about extra homework; missed nights, weekends and vacations with family; hundreds of hours spent with the same 10 people; and enough trivia to fill a season of "Jeopardy!"

"We don't want anybody to get into it and say, 'Oh no, this isn't for me,' " Cerone said.

Daren Battaglia said he is not deterred. "It's an accomplishment," he said. "Best-case scenario: You could say, 'I'm the smartest kid in the nation.' "

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