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Woodland Hills School Wins 3rd U.S. Academic Decathlon

L.A. Unified School District's Taft High tops 38 other teams at national championship. Each of the seniors on the team also medals in 10 individual events.

April 30, 2006|Valerie Reitman | Times Staff Writer

SAN ANTONIO — Taft High School won the U.S. Academic Decathlon championship Saturday night, the third consecutive year a Woodland Hills team has captured the top national honors in the rigorous competition that tests high school students' mettle in areas ranging from calculus, economics, art history and music to impromptu speaking and writing.

By the time the winner was announced at the end of the awards banquet, there was no suspense about which team would win. Every one of Taft's nine team members was draped with medals for placing first, second or third in each of the 10 individual competitions announced before the overall winner.

"It's an incredible finish and an incredible nine months," Michael Farrell, 17, of Canoga Park said of the hard work that the team put in. He hoisted into the air team member Atish Sawant, 18, of Stevenson Ranch, who had the top individual score on the team.

Taft, part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, continued California's impressive showing in the storied competition. In the previous two years, L.A. Unified's El Camino Real High School, also in Woodland Hills, won back-to-back U.S. championships. In 24 years, teams representing the state have placed first or second every year but one. Taft also won U.S. titles in 1994 and 1989.

But this victory stood out, said L.A. Unified decathlon coordinator Cliff Ker, with Taft scoring 51,659 points out of a possible 60,000. "I've never seen anything like this," Ker said. Team members won 43 medals in individual subjects and seven of the top nine awards for overall performance.

As the scores were announced at the San Antonio Convention Center, the Taft seniors shot up their arms and hugged one another. The other 38 teams that participated gave them a standing ovation. The teams that placed second, third and fourth were not confirmed at press time but were believed to be Plano (Texas) High School, Waukesha (Wis.) West High School and Whitney Young Magnet High School from Chicago.

The Taft team is practically a mini-United Nations, including two students born in Russia, one born in Bangladesh and two others whose parents immigrated to the United States from India and Mexico not long before the future decathletes were born.

In addition to Farrell and Sawant, the other team members are Zachary Ellington, 18, of Woodland Hills; Farhan Khan, 18, of Encino; David Lopez, 17, of Burbank; David Novgorodsky, 17, of Woodland Hills; Julia Rebrova, 16, of Encino; Dean Schaffer, 17, of Woodland Hills; and Monica Schettler, 17, of Tarzana. They are bound next fall for colleges and universities including Stanford, UC Berkeley, Yale, Grinnell and the University of San Francisco.

The rules require that nine-member decathlon teams include three members with A averages, three with B averages and three below a B average. On Taft's team, however, all the students are in the difficult individualized honors program, in which, as juniors, they begin taking college-credit English and math classes from Santa Monica Community College.

Some of those college-credit courses are taught by team coach Arthur Berchin, chairman of Taft's English department and also a faculty member at the Santa Monica college.

Berchin coached the school's previous winning teams. After retiring from decathlon coaching in 1994 and taking a decade-long hiatus from the competition, Berchin returned to coaching the team four years ago.

"It's a wonderful feeling -- I'm not speechless," he said after winning. "I don't know -- maybe the third time you win, you kind of take it all in stride a little bit. Maybe the first few times it's like a fantasy, a big blur. Maybe now I can remember all the little details."

Since his return to coaching, the team has won the ferociously competitive L.A. district championships in three of those four years -- only to lose the state championship, including last year to cross-town rival El Camino, which had won a wild-card berth to the state competition. Last year's state defeat by the El Camino team it had beaten at the district competition was particularly humiliating for the Taft team members, six of whom were then juniors. They came in fifth.

They learned their lesson, team captain Schaffer recalled earlier this month as the team spent spring break studying at least eight hours a day. "We didn't work as hard as we should have" between city and state competitions, he said. "It wasn't that we didn't put in enough hours, it's that we weren't using our hours efficiently. The team as a whole was complacent; we thought we would beat El Camino again" at the state level.

Soon after that defeat, the other team members decided to devote themselves to the grueling study schedule one more year to attempt to win the national title. Stanford-bound Schaffer, who had the top score in the state last year (and was second this year) said he was the last one to decide whether it was worth another year of studying an extra 35 hours or so a week for the competition. "I said to my team, 'You've got to promise that you're going to work really hard, because I'm not going to do this again and lose.' "

The silver-haired Berchin, who has taught for 22 years at Taft, is a strict disciplinarian who made no secret that the team's mission was to win the nationals.

At long last, the team was looking forward to relaxing and seeing the Alamo today.

Said Schaffer: "It feels good when you work for something for so long -- it's terrific to finally achieve it."

Asked what he planned to do upon returning to the hotel, Farrell replied, "I'm going to party -- and party hard."

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