Granada Hills Academic Decathlon team has championship in its sights

Granada Hills Academic Decathlon team has championship in its sights
Tanthai Pongstien, 17, left, and Fernando Sanchez, 18, practice math problems on April 14 as they prepare for the national round of the Academic Decathlon. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

It's the best thing ever for Fernando Sanchez and Jorge Zepeda, two cousins who attend Granada Hills Charter High School. Better than goat meat tacos. Better than movies with friends. Better even, they say, than "League of Legends" — the uber-popular online video game that they once obsessively played for hours a day.

The boys have a new passion. It's the Academic Decathlon, and they can't stop talking about the joys of deep dives into quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, nuclear physics and electrochemistry.


"This is way more productive and it's really fun," Fernando said about the decathlon, the 10-event scholastic competition that tests students in math, science, social science, economics, music, art and literature, along with requiring a speech, essay and interview.

Fernando and Jorge, both children of immigrants, are members of one of the nation's most successful decathlon teams. In the last five years, Granada Hills students have won 11 out of a possible 14 city, state and national titles — having been edged out only last year by archrival El Camino Real Charter in Woodland Hills.

After reclaiming the state and Los Angeles Unified city titles earlier this year, the Granada Hills team is aiming to win another national championship in the three-day competition that began Thursday in Garden Grove. This year's theme is alternative energy.

"We've done so well that to lose in the nationals would be devastating," Fernando said.

The two cousins, like the other nine team members, say that the Academic Decathlon isn't just about winning, but the long journey of building team bonds as they acquire knowledge, self-confidence and study skills. The event requires that teams include A, B and C students, which members say cultivates collaboration and teamwork as they help one another succeed.

On campus, as they prepared for nationals this week, the students sat in a circle with a language and literacy practice test and collectively puzzled over whether a passage was organized spatially, chronologically or through other devices. The students took turns answering and asking questions — what's the difference between dialect and colloquial? Can characterization refer to places or just people?

The students are supportive but driven. When one asked why a particular answer was correct, another gently chided her. "We just went over that. Where have you been, friend?"

Fernando pushes his younger cousin Jorge in more direct ways. When he sees Jorge zoning out over his readings, he gives him a wake-up kick. When his cousin complains of fatigue, Fernando tells him: "You're not allowed to be tired, let's keep going."

The team members, who are winnowed from a group of about 50 who try out over the summer, spend more than 30 hours a week studying. Most forgo school dances, sports, student government and other campus activities in their all-consuming fervor to master the material. They sacrifice time with family and friends. As the pace intensifies with the city competition in February, they delete Instagram from their phones and block their own access to Facebook.

Is it worth it?

"Of course," said Irene Lee, a senior who tied the L.A. Unified decathlon individual record in February with a score of 9,461.4 of a possible 10,000 points. "Watching myself separated from the senior class was hard, but it makes you realize how meaningful working hard is."

Jorge, a junior, said he joined the decathlon to improve his work ethic and study skills — and he has. As a sophomore, he got a couple of Ds but this year his grades have soared to As and Bs.

"I saw it as a way to not spend my time unwisely," he said. "It's a great experience if you want to get on the right track."

Natalie Gonzalez, a senior, wanted to break out of her shell. She's still on the shy side, she said, but has improved her public speaking so much that she earned a perfect 1,000 points in a competition this year for her speech on "potable poop" — technology to transform human waste to water.


Fernando, a senior, never had a problem with grades. The son of immigrants from Mexico and Indonesia, he's a self-described math nerd who is headed to MIT this fall.

Fernando said the decathlon experience has prompted him to spend his time far more productively. He used to play "League of Legends" as many as 12 hours a day and was so obsessed that he even attended a live competition at Staples Center to watch the world's best players battle it out. He spends that time now on such endeavors as memorizing all 67 pages of dense text from the decathlon's study guide: "An Introduction to Energy Conversion."

"Playing 'League' is the greatest regret of my life.…I'm so glad I quit," he said.

Mathew Arnold, Granada Hills decathlon coach for the past six years, said one key to building the powerhouse program is knowing what kind of students best succeed. Openness to change, risk-taking and team-building are as important as grades and test scores, he said. Arnold said he's also learned how to pace the students so they don't burn out too soon and he strives to create a sense of family and fun among them.

He has succeeded, judging from student reviews.

"The coaches don't just give you the material but teach us how to be better teammates for each other," Fernando said. "They get us really close and tell us the mindset we need — that it's all for each other."

The team members are: Peter Cho, Irene Lee, Fernando Sanchez, Natalie Gonzalez, Jenean Docter,  Jorge Zepeda, Tanthai Pongstien and Jasmin Kim, and alternates Jihee Han, Josh Lin and Aisha Mahmud.


For the Record

April 16, 9:04 p.m. A previous version of this story said that Jasmin Kim was an alternate and Jihee Han was a team member. Jasmin Kim is a team member and Jihee Han is an alternate.