Granada Hills Charter teammates Sean Wejebe and Julia Wall hold the championship… (Robert Durell, For The Times )
Reporting from Sacramento — For the second year in a row, Granada Hills Charter High School won the California Academic Decathlon as Los Angeles Unified schools continued to dominate at the battle of wits that is at risk of being cut by the district in next year's budget.
Los Angeles Unified on Sunday schools claimed five of the top 10 spots in the competition in Sacramento consisting of 65 teams and more than 550 students, with El Camino Real and Marshall taking second and third places, respectively. Franklin took fifth place and Taft 10th, while Torrance's West High School came in eighth.
Granada Hills scored 52,327 points out of a possible 60,000, allowing the team to proceed for the second consecutive year to the national decathlon, which will be held next month in Albuquerque. Although it's not unprecedented for a team to make a repeat appearance, it's often a long shot: Granada Hills had to rebuild its team this year with a new crop of competitors.
On Sunday, the students — with medals hanging from their necks — were stunned by their own victory.
"I was tense the whole day, and this feels like a big release," senior Lev Tauz said after the winner was announced.
"It's just a nerve-wracking few days, and the level of competition is so high," said Matt Arnold, one of Granada's coaches. "You can't take anything for granted. I'm relieved."
The state competition was the culmination of months of work. Many teams start practicing as early as the spring before the next school year.
Hamidah Mahmud, an 11th-grader, said their success was the product of becoming a cohesive team, just as much as building up scores. Kimberly Ly, a senior, said they all had to "learn what motivates each other and gets us going."
Lev described decathlon as a monumental commitment in which competitors have to have a measure of courage to step outside the comfort zone of their strongest subjects (his: math and science) to take on more difficult challenges.
Lev said he struggled with the contests focused on public speaking and literature because English is his second language. With several gold and silver medals hanging around his neck, he said he was especially proud of the bronze — for speech.
The Granada Hills team includes Sean Wejebe, Christian Koguchi, Priscilla Liu, Jimmy Wu, Stella Lee and Julia Wall, as well as Lev, Hamidah and Kimberly. In addition to Arnold, they are coached by Nick Weber and Spencer Wolf.
Even as the various schools had their sights set on Sacramento, for Los Angeles teams — the district sent 13 — there was also concern about whether future students would have the same opportunity. A preliminary, worst-case budget approved by the Board of Education last week would slash decathlon's funding, along with cutting thousands of jobs, adult school and other extracurricular programs.
Some of the coaches and students lamented what could be lost.
"These kids have proven they can learn if they have a reason to learn," said Richard Cunningham, coach of Los Angeles High School's team. "Other high school students won't be able to discuss imperialism" — the topic of this year's competition — "in any intelligent way, but they can."
"I'm very bored with school — it's very mundane," said Justin De Toro, a Los Angeles High senior. But decathlon, he said, "is so different from school. My school doesn't offer music, but through decathlon I can learn it. [Decathlon is] something I can apply to life and to college. It's life skills."
The L.A. High team came in 22nd in the overall competition and brought home nearly a dozen medals. Seven of those belonged to Salome Ok, the team's top scorer.
Even if decathlon winds up being cut in next year's budget, Justin said he is happy his team made it to the state finals this year.