When the state Catholic Schools Junior High Academic Decathlon begins today in Chula Vista, a small Mid-City school will be representing the Los Angeles Archdiocese for the third time, having beaten out more than 100 other parochial schools to get there.
Cathedral Chapel School represented the archdiocese in the state competition in 2002 and 2005, winning the state title in 2002 and earning a reputation as the tough little school that nobody had heard of.
Though the Catholic competition may not have the name recognition of its public high school counterpart, the members of Cathedral's Academic Decathlon team are about the biggest guns on campus and the pride of the neighborhood.
At a pep rally this week, the elementary school's 285 students whooped and hollered for two hours in a frenzied buildup to the team's departure.
The Cathedral decathletes, mostly the sons and daughters of working-class immigrants, are more than just academic heroes. Scores of families are attracted to the school because they view the decathlon team's success as a reflection of the campus' overall academic excellence.
As other parochial schools face severe financial strains and even closure because of declining enrollment, Cathedral is financially stable and its enrollment has increased.
"Our history of winning the Academic Decathlon has had a huge influence in having families send their kids to our school and has been a huge factor in the school's success," said Cathedral Principal Tina K. Kipp.
That the school and its decathlon team also reflect the vibrant diversity of its Miracle Mile neighborhood with a mix of Korean, African American, Latino, Filipino and other ethnic and religious groups has only enhanced its appeal, Kipp said.
This year's state competition will pit Cathedral against eight other schools in two team efforts -- a Logic Quiz and Super Quiz -- as well as events testing individual team members' knowledge of English, science, math, current events and special topics that this year include the Beatles, Abraham Lincoln, "The Chronicles of Narnia" and volcanoes.
There will be some tough competition, including Dana Point's St. Edward the Confessor Parish School, but just getting through the Los Angeles division (Cathedral squeaked past St. Robert Bellarmine of Burbank by five points) is perhaps the biggest trial, said head coach Barbara Moldavon, who teaches language arts at Cathedral.
"Nobody in the state has to compete at the level of Los Angeles with more than 100 schools," she said. "We've bested schools from parishes that have many more resources than we do and that don't have to share books or ask for donations."
Joining the ranks of Cathedral's team is a challenge in itself. Students must have at least a 3.0 grade-point average, be on the honor roll and agree to abide by the team's honor code.
Students who were previously on the team are not automatically guaranteed a spot.
The state competition has required a tough regimen of almost nonstop practice and review since October, but the students said it was well worth the effort.
"It's a lot of sacrifices, but the payoff -- being part of this tradition -- is great," said team member Joseph Floyd, 14, whose special event is literature.
Earl Park, 14, said that he remembers being in the sixth grade and not knowing what an Academic Decathlon was but "all of the team members were role models for the school, and I said one day I want to be up there."
Robby Floyd, 13, Joseph's brother, won first place in current events in the Los Angeles Archdiocese competition. The students were grilled on the contents of 12 Sunday Los Angeles Times A sections. But he was making no predictions about his outcome in the state event.
"I didn't even think I'd place in L.A.," he said. "It was harder, I guess, than I thought."
For all of their studiousness, they are a loose and jokey bunch.
"We have a lot of fun sharing, joking with teachers and laughing when someone makes a mistake," said Fred Hong, 14.
Most are also involved in sports and other activities. "We're integrated individuals," said Joseph, employing a phrase that embodies one of the school's core values.
Other team members are: Song-Yi Chun, Juan Chung, Chris Ki, Andrew Kim, Sam Park, Yohanes Shimelis, Flora Eun and Marian Kim and coaches Roman del Pozo and Long Pham and student mentor Echo Matthews.
Cathedral, which opened in 1930 and is now a neighborhood landmark at the corner of 8th Street and Cochran Avenue, begins instilling a sense of academic competitiveness early on with religion and geography bees in the lower grades.
Parents have also supported the school's investment in technology, raising money for such things as LCD projectors and laptop computers. With the parish's help, they also raised $150,000 over four years to install the school's first heating and air-conditioning unit last year.
Heather Risinger, whose daughter and son attend Cathedral, said she remembers driving by the school and seeing a banner about the Academic Decathlon champions.
"I was looking for a kindergarten for my daughter, and that made me pull over," Risinger said.
Though Cathedral may once have been anonymous, Moldavon expects that other competitors this year will recognize its name.
"These are L.A. kids -- our future -- and they give me incredible hope," she said.
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