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Offering a Precious Chance to Shine

Teens doing time at probation camps battle for academic title.

June 24, 2004|Nikki Usher | Times Staff Writer

Buzzing in with "Jeopardy"-style clickers, the contestants fired off answers in rapid succession about the atmosphere of Mars, Newton's Second Law of Physics and the definition of entropy.

They had prepared for months, quizzing one another, memorizing facts and doing hours of research on the Internet and in the library.

Some wore suits and ties, others neat T-shirts. With their practiced delivery and occasionally squeaky adolescent voices, the 30 teenage boys battled Wednesday for the countywide title in the Academic Bowl at Loyola Marymount University.

Many are convicted felons, and all are doing time at probation camps in Los Angeles County.

For the young offenders ages 13 to 17 and those involved in their rehabilitation, the Academic Bowl, now in its 12th year, is an opportunity to demonstrate that these students are capable of academic success.

"These kids have made bad choices and have paid for them, but this kind of academic competition shows them that they are college material," said Michael Hurtado, a member of the probation commission and emcee for the event.

Four teams emerged as finalists from contests held earlier this month at juvenile halls, probation camps and group homes run by the county Office of Education's court schools system. All four were from probation camps -- the eventual winner from Camp Kilpatrick in Malibu.

Addressing this year's theme of space exploration, the boys competed Wednesday in a "Jeopardy"-style quiz that included physics, chemistry, biology and space questions taken from state standardized tests.

They also had formal debates over the merits of space exploration and were required to prepare PowerPoint presentations about establishing a hypothetical colony on Mars.

Preparing for this day, teachers and staff said, these teens didn't just learn science, they learned to work as a team and to commit to a goal.

"For many of these kids, working hard on something academic is totally a foreign concept," said Rick Stutley, Academic Bowl coach and teacher at Camp Holton in the San Fernando Valley.

Stutley's students have been working since March for up to three hours a day, following a regular day of instruction.

Robert G., 15, clutched a manila folder filled with research "just in case" he needed to do a last-minute fact check for the team from Camp Rockey in San Dimas. "I used to be in a little trouble, but I did so much work for this," he said.

According to court order, the juveniles' last names could not be made public.

Students at Camp Mendenhall in Lake Hughes went through intensive public speaking instruction to get ready for the event, which was judged by a panel of educators and a judge.

"At first, we saw them fighting a lot, and we were putting together a lot of kids from different backgrounds and gangs," said Kathy Luongo, who helped prepare them. "We really saw them all come together."

For Peter T., of Camp Mendenhall, the competition was a chance to show his mother and his brother that he could make them proud.

"I've made some mistakes in the past, but this is my way to make up for them," he said.

Peter T.'s brother, Tony, beamed as he watched his younger brother dominate much of the "Jeopardy" portion of the competition.

"We know he's smart," Tony said. "And the fact he's here means that he's going to get out and do the right thing."

For many of the boys, the competition bred self-esteem.

Bo J., 18, of Camp Holton, said he originally signed up for the Academic Bowl as a way to get out of the daily camp routine.

"I'm in because I was missing so much school, but now I'm competing in an Academic Bowl," he said. "I know I'm smart, and this is proof."

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