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El Camino Real wins National Academic Decathlon

The Woodland Hills high school sets a record with its sixth national title. It beats 34 other teams, earning 49,951.7 points out of a possible 60,000, and its members take home 21 individual prizes.

April 25, 2010|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Omaha —

Powerhouse El Camino Real High School clinched the National Academic Decathlon title here Saturday, marking its record-setting sixth U.S. victory.

The Woodland Hills school's triumph was no accident. The team had been preparing for eight intense months with a level of detail that was evident even in their luggage.

When they arrived at the championship in Omaha last week, the coaches' suitcases were stuffed with supplies for every conceivable emergency — stain sticks, lint rollers, painkillers and pantyhose, three shades of nail polish and neckties in eight colors. No soiled shirts or runs in stockings would imperil their team's chances.

They left Omaha lugging a different kind of load — trophies, medals and other spoils from their championship victory.

The win further bolsters California's dominance in the competition. It was the state's eighth consecutive national title and its 17th since the competition began in 1982.

After two days of rigorous testing in an array of academic subjects, the nine-member California team beat out 34 others, including strong squads from Arizona, Texas, Illinois and Wisconsin. The California team earned 49,951.7 points out of a possible 60,000, and its members took home 21 individual prizes.

When El Camino's victory was announced at the awards banquet Saturday, the students and their coaches immediately embraced in one big hug.

It was the climax of a journey that began last August, when the team first convened at El Camino.

Their study area was an old teachers' lounge they dubbed the "penthouse" because of its large windows and balcony.

They spent hundreds of hours there together, studying after school, on weekends and sometimes late into the night.

Desks were often piled with sprawling stacks of workbooks and practice tests. Trash cans regularly overflowed with fast-food wrappers.

At El Camino, the Academic Decathlon is as big a deal as football. In fact, coaches John Dalsass and Stephanie Franklin are paid the same salary as the school's sports coaches.

When the El Camino students won the California Academic Decathlon in Sacramento last month, Principal Dave Fehte bought them all sunglasses so they could return to L.A. in style. And, he told them, he expected them to win in Omaha.

When they showed up for the national championship, students from other schools treated them like celebrities.

"We would be walking by and they'd be like, ‘Oh my God, there goes California,'" said Michael Walker, 18, a senior.

There wasn't time for socializing. When kids from other teams went out to dinner or went swimming, the California kids stayed in their rooms, studying.

After the last test was taken on Friday, the students finally let their hair down. That night they stayed up late, hanging out with kids from other schools at a pool party. At least one love connection was made, coach Franklin said.

When she noticed numerals scrawled by a young woman on the hand of El Camino's Andrew Fann, she crowed, "He's got phone numbers! He's got digits!"

Franklin, an English teacher at El Camino, is known to push students academically while lavishing them with love.

While the team waited for the winners of the competition to be announced on Saturday, she went to senior Audrey Goldbaum, 17, who was so nervous she said she felt ill.

Goldbaum, a straight-A student who dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon, said she was willing to sacrifice sanity for success. "If that requires me to be an anal-retentive, type-A freak, I'm OK with that," she said.

Franklin pulled Goldbaum out of her seat and began dancing with her. As they swayed together and Goldbaum relaxed, Franklin told the girl she was proud of her and said the results of the competition didn't really matter.

"Sweetheart, sweetheart, look, you've already won," Franklin said. "I don't care what [the judges] say. You've won."

Minutes later, the team learned it had actually won, and the students charged the stage. Some, like top-scoring varsity student Daniel de Haas, cried. Others, like Goldbaum, laughed.

"I have so much homework waiting for me but I don't even care," she said, beaming.

The parents on hand for the competition were as moved as their children.

"Oh Jesus, thank you," Shirley Walker said over and over as she hugged the other parents. She said she was especially proud of her son, Michael, because he was the first African American on an El Camino decathlon team.

Other team members included Evan Edmisten, Vivian Cheng, Jessica Lin, Daniel Moreh and Adriana Ureche.

Their next ambition? Meeting President Obama. In previous years, presidents have hosted winners of the Academic Decathlon at the White House.

The team returned to California on Saturday night. On Monday, the coaches will get busy recruiting for next year.

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