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In L.A. County, a battle of the brains

A day of decathlons, spelling bees and science bowls put the brightest students to the test.

February 08, 2009|Esmeralda Bermudez and Ruben Vives

It was the day of the brainiac.

Across California, nearly 10,000 students -- pencils in hand, minds reeling after hours of study -- battled in a series of academic contests Saturday that, unlike previous years, all landed on the same date.

More than 100 high schools faced off in two regional decathlons at USC and UCLA, while 25 more competed in a science bowl at Caltech. And in a low-slung county district office in East L.A., 60 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders bashfully fidgeted their way to a microphone, fighting for first place in a spelling bee.

"This is a day of our own, a day for us to be praised," said Susana Zambrano, a 17-year-old from Hawthorne High School, as she looked around the USC gym where she and 500 other sharp-minded students from around L.A. County had just celebrated the end of four hours of testing.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, February 12, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Academic decathlons: An article in Sunday's California section about several academic decathlons and similar competitions said the regional science bowl was held at Caltech. It was hosted by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and was held at JPL's La Canada Flintridge campus.

Before the Super Quiz, the senior and her teammates enthusiastically hopped around in handmade Carmen Miranda fruit hats that honored this year's decathlon theme of Latin America. Others strutted by in neckties, skeleton costumes, giant sombreros, color-coordinated shirts and, in some cases, blue hair and football war paint.

Some of the decathletes studied as long as a year to prepare for this day. At UCLA, parents and coaches from Los Angeles Unified schools took over the food court before 9 a.m., books, notes and flashcards spilled across tables.

As Kiabet Valenzuela, 17, and about 10 other alternates from the Elizabeth Learning Center in Cudahy counted down to the first break, their team of nine participants tested behind closed doors. The group was prepared to quiz team members about the economy, serve them snacks and amuse them with jokes.

"We rub their backs," Valenzuela said. "We do anything to help them."

A few tables away, Arleta High School coach Teresa Dowell played back the last four months in her mind. The 3-year-old school was participating in the decathlon for the first time, and Dowell used everything from Michael Phelps to the cooking channel to inspire the students. One hour into the first test, she wondered if she had done enough.

Her students would be up against schools such as Woodland Hills' El Camino Real High School, a titan with five national championships.

"I just hope they are satisfied with the experience," said Dowell, adding that she would be elated if the group made the Top 20 in overall scores.

Across town in East L.A., about 150 parents hollered and clapped as elementary school students spelled their way through words such as "ration" and "rumor."

By 11 a.m., a number of competitors had been eliminated. Those remaining faced yellow-clad judges. With pursed lips and raised shoulders, some confidently blurted out correct answers; others paused in defeat to look at their tennis shoes. Not far off, the grand prize: a bee Beanie Baby, a bee pen, a certificate and a chance to move on to the county championship.

"I was a little scared," said Leslie Gonzalez, a pig-tailed 10-year-old from Lorena Street School.

The fifth-grader was optimistic as judges called her number. She rose from her chair, walked past her competitors and stopped in front of the microphone.

"The word is advise," the emcee told her.

"A-D-V-I-C-E," Gonzalez said in return.

The bell rang in disapproval and Gonzalez demurely walked into the audience, seeking comfort on her mother's lap.

"I'm a little sad, but mostly relieved it's over," she said as those still vying to win were escorted to the restroom.

At the regional Science Bowl in Pasadena, students pushed through last rounds for a chance to represent the area in the U.S. Department of Energy National Science Bowl. Drained from a full day of bout after bout, some students fell asleep in their chairs. One read a book and another sneaked in some knitting.

Santa Monica High School and Arcadia High School advanced to the finals. But in the end, Santa Monica, already a five-time regional winner, cinched a sixth victory. Asked what the team plans to do next, captain Marino DiFranco said: "Read. Read. Read."

"We have a lot of work ahead of us," said 17-year-old Antonia Rubell, one of three new members of the group already looking to the national contest.

Back at USC, Zambrano's teammates strolled onto the basketball court flashing their fruit hats and Hawthorne banner. The procession of students was received like a football team sprinting onto the field for the Super Bowl. Super Quiz questions drilled down on evolutionary biology, asking about the Galapagos Islands, chromosomes and organism development.

The court erupted with cheers after every seven-second round. Signs were raised in the air showing each team's score. Alhambra's Mark Keppel High School, last year's champ, signaled each win by twirling their pencils in the air, a salute to brainpower.

"All right!" emcee Lynette Romero of KTLA-TV Channel 5 told the crowd. "You guys are on a roll."

In the end, Torrance High and Marshall High were the unofficial winners of the Super Quiz at USC and UCLA, respectively. Final overall results for the two regional decathlons will be announced later this week.


esmeralda.bermudez@latimes .com

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