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Forget paradise; they're studying

Luaus? Volcanoes? Leis? It all had to wait as El Camino crammed for the national decathlon finals in Hawaii.

April 28, 2007|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

HONOLULU — Since arriving here earlier this week, teams competing in the National Academic Decathlon in Waikiki have snorkled, hiked, visited Pearl Harbor, played Ultimate Frisbee under the stars, shopped, taken dinner cruises, hung out -- all the things you'd expect a group of teenagers to do on what is, for many, their first trip to Hawaii.

But the eight students from El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, who arrived Monday, have opted for a different Hawaiian experience. Each morning, they have risen at 6 a.m. and studied or taken part in the competition until 10 p.m. Then they have gone to sleep.

"It's nice to see the view from our window occasionally," said an only slightly wistful Sam Farahmand, a gangly member of the team known for his dry wit.

The odds-on favorite in the competition, El Camino's team is gunning for a record-tying fifth national title at this annual Super Bowl of brains, which this year has teams from 39 states.

"I think 'focus' is the key word with these kids," said Cliff Ker, the Academic Decathlon coordinator for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "They know exactly what they need to do, and they're doing it."

What is it about Los Angeles schools and the Academic Decathlon?

Year after year, California ranks near the bottom in most national measures of academic proficiency. Los Angeles Unified ranks near the bottom of the state.

But in recent years, L.A. Unified has come to practically own the Academic Decathlon. Since 1987, when Marshall High School fielded the first district team to win the decathlon, teams from Los Angeles have won eight more national championships, including the last three in a row, two by El Camino and one by Taft High.

"They have always told us that it is more competitive ... at the L.A. city championships than the nationals," said Teresa Luna, the coach from Madison Academic High School in Jackson, Tenn. "It's like football in Texas."

And as in football, these students have had their game faces on.

On Thursday, when the teams dressed up for their official portraits, there were lots of boys in dress shirts and khakis, and lots of girls in demure dresses.

Then El Camino showed up, looking like the team from the FBI. The five girls and three boys all wore black or dark navy suits and dead-serious expressions. When the photographer, Michael Kelling, asked them to act goofy for one final shot, the students just stared at him.

"Boy, this is a fun group, isn't it?" Kelling said.

Even the team's two coaches, Lissa Gregorio and Liz Johnson, seemed to sense that the students needed to loosen up. "We've got to get them out of these suits," Johnson said.

The thaw ended late Friday after the Super Quiz, the final competitive event and the only one open to the public. El Camino didn't win it, largely for technical reasons. (The Super Quiz is the only event that tallies scores from all nine contestants on a team, and El Camino has only eight, one student having quit earlier in the school year.)

Still, despite the handicap, El Camino placed third, missing only one of the 40 questions the team was asked on this year's Super Quiz topic, climatology. Gregorio said that was a better showing than she had expected and augured well for the final results, which will be announced this afternoon after scores from all events are tallied.

"If this is any indication ... we're sitting in a good position right now," she said.

With the hard part past them, the El Camino students turned giddy, hugging and laughing and high-fiving. Asked about her plans for the night, the normally talkative Shengya Cao smiled wearily. "Relax. Food. Eat." As an afterthought, she added, "Enjoy Hawaii."

Since the beginning of the National Academic Decathlon in 1982, the event has been dominated by two states: California and Texas. California teams have won 13 national titles; Texas, 11. The only other state to win a title is Wisconsin, with a sole victory in 2002.

Those who follow the decathlon say there are three reasons why California schools in general, and Los Angeles schools in particular, do so well. California has the largest high schools in the country, giving each school a big pool of talent. It also has the most schools, so teams that rise to the top have to defeat many rivals.

The state's reputation as a decathlon powerhouse has raised the event's profile, making more students want to participate. And, finally, some districts, especially L.A. Unified, decided early on to make the decathlon a priority and put far more resources into it than their counterparts in other states.

L.A. Unified has a full-time decathlon coordinator and offers stipends for coaches that are the equivalent of what some athletic coaches receive -- roughly $4,700 per team per year. The decision to offer coaches extra pay "institutionalized it as much as being head football coach or head baseball coach," said David Tokofsky, a school board member who coached the 1987 Marshall team.

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