PROUD: Samuel Kullens, right, Franklin High's Academic Decathlon… (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles…)
People around school think of them as the smart kids, but they never thought they'd be known for that. Thanks to photos of their faces plastered on the walls of Franklin High School, members of the nine-member Academic Decathlon team are being recognized by their peers and teachers.
And for good reason: This is the first group in school history to make it to the state competition that began Saturday and continues Sunday.
They are competing against 61 other teams in the grueling contest that tests students' knowledge in 10 areas, including language, literature, economics, art and science -- with a focus on the French Revolution .
"This is huge for them," said Samuel Kullens, the Franklin coach. In recent years, Kullens has had to beg students to join the team. He doesn't have to do that anymore.
Students have been studying since last May, giving up summer and winter breaks to do so.
It has paid off.
Accustomed to the same schools winning again and again (Marshall High and El Camino Real), coaches and students were surprised when Franklin placed first in speech, second in essay, third in music and third in the popular Super Quiz portion of the Los Angeles Unified School District competition.
Coaches and students could be heard asking "Who's Franklin?" at the competition awards in February.
"It's about time that we can be at the table with the big boys," said Principal Luis Lopez, a 1984 graduate of the Highland Park school.
Franklin isn't known for academics. It has a decades-long gang problem, and last March fewer than three-quarters of its students passed the California High School Exit Exam. In 2008, the four-year dropout rate was almost one in five, according to state data.
The school's Academic Performance Index, which rates schools on a scale of 200 to 1,000, was 640 this year. The state's target score is 800.
Although the team members are solid, hardworking students, many have never accomplished anything like this before. Most said they couldn't speak in front of a class before joining the team. Now they're confidently giving speeches.
Some will be the first in their families to attend college, and others balance school with part-time jobs. Many speak a language other than English at home. When they flew to Sacramento, four had never before been on an airplane.
Raymond Rivera, 17, joined the Academic Decathlon team as a freshman. He quit the same day, overwhelmed by the demands. He was sure he couldn't learn seven subjects cold, give a speech, keep his cool during an interview and write a coherent essay.
"I thought I couldn't do it," Raymond said.
But he rejoined.
"Now, to be one of the smart people," said Raymond, who will be the first in his family to attend college, "I guess it's kind of special."
But Mayra Fuentes of South Los Angeles said the team's performance doesn't come down to brains. "It's not because we're smart," said the 16-year-old junior. "It's more about time and dedication."
Mayra is no stranger to dedication: She is bused in each morning to Franklin, a magnet school, and has a two-hour Metro train and bus ride after decathlon practice.
For the team's top scorer, Juan Cuadra, the regional competition was one he'll never forget.
"That was the first time my father told me he was proud of me," said the 17-year-old junior.
When the team read Charles Dickens and William Blake, Kullens said, the works were culturally foreign to the students and had to be deciphered.
Most of the students had never analyzed art, so Kullens took them to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Some had never listened to classical music.
"They said 'This all sounds the same,' " Kullens said.
During practice Monday, however, Omar Carrillo could not only pick out Beethoven's "Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!" but also declared it his favorite, bobbing his head along with the music.
"After doing decathlon, every class seems so much easier," said Omar, 16, who said he's stunned when students or teachers praise him.
"You realize, 'Wow, I'm doing something for this school,' " he said.
On Tuesday, the team was comfortably sitting at desks, some clad in their signature blue decathlete T-shirts with yellow lettering. Many wrote notes and ate vanilla creme cookies that Kullens distributed. French classical music played while Andy Vuong, 16, a football-turned-intellectual athlete, guided the study session.
"Know the difference between a homogenous and heterogenous solution," he said.
No matter what happens at the state competition, team members said they will do their best. They include Jossue Vega, 18, Ruby Escalante, 17, Klariobaldo Zavala, 18, and Richard Cao, 17.
Some of the boys will be wearing suits for the first time. But they're bent on looking classy -- ready to compete in crisp navy suits with gold ties -- Franklin's school colors.