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Smart, in an easygoing way

The ‘varsity’ students on decathlon teams keep the others loose and sometimes earn top scores.

April 24, 2010|By Kate Linthicum, Reporting from Omaha

When El Camino Real High School senior Daniel de Haas earned the highest score at last month's California Academic Decathlon, he proved himself to be one the smartest kids in the state.

But you wouldn't know it from his grades. The 17-year-old's report cards are riddled with Bs, Cs and the occasional "fail."

Thanks to a requirement that teams include students with a range of grade-point averages, each nine-member Academic Decathlon squad in the country has at least a few kids like De Haas: bright but uneven students who may chafe in a traditional classroom setting.

Coaches say these students bring a certain irreverence to the competition and help loosen up their straight-A — and typically type-A — teammates. And in the high-pressure world of the Academic Decathlon, where students are expected to study up to six hours a day, seven days a week, that's a priceless contribution.

Take it from Benjamin Farahmand, a C student when he was on El Camino Real's 2005 decathlon team. After intense study sessions, Farahmand, now 23, would encourage his teammates to grunt like apes to let out tension. "I was really good at catharsis," he said.

Catharsis could come in handy this weekend in Omaha, where 37 teams from across the country have converged for the National Academic Decathlon.

For two days, students have been crammed in conference rooms at a suburban hotel, taking tests in an array of subjects, from economics to history. The triumphant team will be announced Saturday.

If El Camino Real wins — a prospect observers say is likely — it will be the team's sixth national championship, and the Woodland Hills school will claim a record for the school with most wins.

Decathlon rules require each team to have three A students, three B students, and three C students, who are known as "varsity." During the competitions, scores from the two highest performers in each grade group are compiled to form the team's total score.

On Friday, after the final portion of the competition, a multiple choice test known as the Super Quiz, the students from Woodland Hills gathered with their coaches and parents to take photographs and let out a collective sigh of relief. When a disc jockey started blasting hip-hop hits, senior Evan Edmisten, 17, was one of the first people on the dance floor.

Evan, of course, is a varsity student.

"The varsity kids are kind of like the flavor of a team," observed Cliff Ker, the head of the Academic Decathlon program for Los Angeles Unified School District. "It's a part of that formula, that team spirit that develops among the nine kids."

As Daniel de Haas' victory last month demonstrates, varsity students should not be dismissed as goof-offs, Ker said, despite the fact that sometimes they like to goof off. Since the first national event in 1982, varsity students have several times recorded the top score in the competition, beating "A" students with 4.0 GPAs, he said.

In 2002, a junior named Ryan Ramlow helped clinch a victory for his Wisconsin team, marking the first — and only — time a team from a state other than Texas or California has won the competition.

Ramlow's grade-point average at the time was a paltry 1.8. But he flourished in competition, his coach said, and worked harder than he did when he was in school because here he was beholden to his teammates. "Desk rows and work sheets just bored him," said coach Duane Stein.

On the other hand, varsity students can transform a team, Stein said. "They bring a humor, looseness," he said. "They make the other students human."

Daniel Berdichevsky, who won a national championship with Los Angeles' 's Taft High School in 1994, remembers that keenly.

Berdichevsky, a straight-A student who went on to Harvard, said he was teamed up with one of the varsity kids to help teach him better study skills.

In the end, Berdichevsky was the one who was given the education.

"He introduced me to cloud-gazing and Beavis and Butthead," Berdichevsky said fondly.

Although the requirement that teams must be made up of students from all achievement levels is one of the competition's more endearing quirks, it can open the door to devious possibilities, Berdichevsky said.

On his Taft High team, for example, one student who knew he wouldn't be able to make the decathlon team as an A student purposely flunked a math final so he could qualify as a B student.

"Is that a bad incentive? Yes," Berdichevsky said.

Daniel de Haas insists his bad grades were not so premeditated.

"I just do well in the things I love, and I don't in the things I don't," he said, explaining his straight-A math grades and his failing grade in Spanish.

Because of his uneven academic performance, the senior did not get into several of the colleges he applied to. But the decathlon has taught him how to be a better student, he said, and so when he heads to UC Riverside next year, he thinks he'll be able to earn straight A's and eventually transfer to a more challenging school. A computer programming whiz, he would love to work at Google.

But for now, he must wait to see how he and his team did at nationals. "It's an insane amount of pressure," he acknowledged. Apparently, even varsity students get butterflies.

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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