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Cramming Over, Students Vie Today in Academic Decathlon

Brainpower: Fourteen Ventura County high schools battle in the first round.


Moorpark High School senior Sheena Sidhu knew she had been studying way too much when highlighters began cropping up in her dreams.

Sheena, 17, has spent nearly 1,000 hours poring over mounds of study material in preparation for this year's Academic Decathlon, the nation's premier scholastic competition.

Her collection of bright-colored pens has kept her organized--and, oftentimes, sane.

"If I can't find a highlighter, I start to panic," Sheena said.

She is among nearly 200 Ventura County students who will compete at Oxnard High School today in the first round of the Ventura County Academic Decathlon.

For the past six months--after school, before class, on weekends and through winter vacation--the teenagers from Ventura to Simi Valley have been crunching numbers, memorizing sonnets and rehearsing speeches.

Eighteen teams from 14 high schools will participate in this year's event, which begins today with essay, speech and interview contests and will culminate Feb. 2 in a second round of tests and the final Super Quiz.

The winning team, to be announced at a Feb. 4 awards ceremony at Pacifica High School in Oxnard, will go on to a statewide competition in Modesto at the end of March. The country's top teams will then face off at the national finals in Phoenix in April.

"The team to beat would be Moorpark High School, because they are the defending county champion from last year," said Phil Gore, the county's Academic Decathlon coordinator. "But we have several strong teams, so it should be quite exciting."

This year's contest again involves students from rival Moorpark and Simi Valley high schools, who have traded the county title for the past eight years. In 2000, Simi Valley beat Moorpark's team in the state competition by one question.

Last year, no teacher stepped up to coach Simi Valley's team so the school was left out of the contest.

This year's group, led by new English teacher Debbie Mjoen, is made up mostly of sophomores who promise they will be a force to be reckoned with in years to come.

"It's our first year, so the main thing is we want to make a good impression," said Aroon Karra, 15. "We want to show that we're back and that Moorpark will have some competition next year."

One day last week, the teens were gathered in Mjoen's classroom, which is decorated with study notes made into colorful posters. They watched videos of themselves giving their prepared speeches and got tips from Bruce Louie, a former decathlon judge.

They also bounced around the room doing loud "speech circles"--in which everyone delivers his or her four-minute soliloquy at the same time--as a way to practice good concentration.

Sophomore Jessi Pinkerton, 16, said she joined the team to meet people. She accomplished that, she said, whether the team wins or not.

Each team prepares for the event differently. At Oak Park High School, students take a more relaxed attitude, said coach Cheryl DiSpaltro.

They meet only twice a week for an hour and a half and try to study using games they invent, such as a quiz styled on the game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

"I hate to see the kids put so much pressure on themselves that they become over-stressed, so I try to keep it a little more casual," she said. "They end up learning a lot about team spirit."

Meanwhile in Moorpark, students sat in desks forming a small circle and critiqued each other's practice essays. They did a test on music and then took a break to read up on material for the Super Quiz.

Their coach, history teacher Larry Jones, said this year's group is one of the most dedicated he has seen. They go to Starbucks at 5 a.m. to study before school and stay in his classroom until 8 p.m. four nights a week. When he was scheduling study time during the holiday break, they asked him for more days.

"They are determined to do their best," Jones said. "If someone does better than them, that team is going to have to be really good."

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