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In national Academic Decathlon, 2 L.A. schools are a smart set

This year, the closest competition for Granada Hills Charter High School — California's first-place team — is another campus from L.A. Unified: longtime powerhouse El Camino Real.

April 26, 2013|By Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times
  • The Granada Hills team accepts the championship trophy at the 2012 National Academic Decathlon in Albuquerque, N.M.
The Granada Hills team accepts the championship trophy at the 2012 National… (Eric Draper, Santa Monica…)

Over the years, it wasn't unusual to see a Southern California school dominate the Academic Decathlon national competition. After California teams took 19 national titles since 1982 — including the last 10 in a row — it was almost expected.

But this year comes with a twist: The closest competition for Granada Hills Charter High School — California's first-place team — is another school from Los Angeles Unified.

A change in the rules in the rigorous 10-subject event has allowed more than one team from each state to compete at the nationals, creating a freeway series between two of the strongest teams vying to bring the title back to Los Angeles once again.

"That's a dead heat!" Cliff Ker, who coordinates the decathlon for L.A. Unified, said of the state scores for Granada Hills, looking for its third consecutive win, and El Camino Real Charter High School, a longtime powerhouse looking to reclaim the title.

Granada Hills scored 51,590 points at the state competition in Sacramento last month; El Camino Real amassed 51,094. In a competition in which teams can notch more than 60,000 points, the teams are neck-and-neck, and both are leading the pack of about 50 teams taking part in the national competition, which began Thursday in Minneapolis.

"I honestly — honestly — think it's a toss-up," Ker said. "It could be either one. They're both that good. I wish I could find a new way to say this, but every year, the kids just get better and better."

For the strongest schools in California, coaches said state was where the competition was toughest. The students didn't slack off for nationals, they said, but the preparation wasn't as stringent because California schools traditionally entered nationals with the highest scores. "As coaches, we look at the other scores and take a breath," said Stephanie Franklin, El Camino Real's coach, who led the team to a national victory in 2010.

But there's no breather this time around.

"I almost consider it a second state competition this time," said Hamidah Mahmud, a Granada Hills senior, returning to her second national competition. "If you're a soldier, you don't get to pick your battles. This year has been a struggle. Like any soldier, I can't run away from it. It's motivated us to study more than we ever have before."

It's an event that already requires students to make significant sacrifices to perform well. Late nights and weekends were spent studying such subjects as math, science, art and literature, or practicing their speeches. They say they had to build up the endurance to study as much as they did. "It's normal for you to sit for six hours reading a guide," Mahmud said.

"It's like trying to run a race, but going even faster — faster than you ever did before," Julian Zano, a El Camino Real senior, said of the weeks between state and nationals. "You really have to push yourself."

Having a school rival just miles away made them work harder.

"It's kept us on our toes," said Jae Kyung Chong, a Granada Hills junior. "It has kept us from becoming complacent. We've been aware they're really close, and could catch up to us, so we've been preparing very hard."

On Friday, El Camino Real came in first in the Super Quiz, a relay that is the only portion of the competition open to the public, edging out Granada Hills, according to an unofficial tally.

If either team wins, it would continue Los Angeles' tradition of dominance, with the district bringing home its 14th national title since its first in 1987. Granada Hills has won the last two years, but El Camino Real has had six national victories since 1998.

Tamar Galatzan, whose school board district includes both campuses, said that the district has supported the decathlon even as its budget shrank dramatically in recent years. "It sends the right message," she said. "It's an example of the idea that test scores and grades don't define success. Academic Decathlon highlights that there are intelligent, dynamic, capable students at all different levels."

Even as the teams make a final push for victory, the students say they don't see themselves as battling the other teams, in particular their counterparts from Los Angeles.

"The competition is against yourself," Mahmud said. "Your competition has already been completed in those days of preparing yourself. If you can't bring it in those other days, you can't bring it the last day."

"We're just living in the moment," said Ranbir Dhillon, an El Camino Real senior. "It never came down to beating Granada. It was always about winning nationals ... seeing how good we are."

Members of the two teams have become friends, and they see each other as kindred spirits: Only they realize how much they've put into this, and why.

And they want to maintain that relationship. When the competition is over — and the winner announced Saturday — both teams will board the same flight, bound for Los Angeles.

rick.rojas@latimes.com

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