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L.A. schools finish one-two in national Academic Decathlon

Human Interest

They were tired and worn from months of preparation and two days of intense competition, but when they returned home to Los Angeles on Saturday they were also thrilled. For the third year in a row, Granada Hills Charter High School's Academic Decathlon team came home with a national victory.

"To see it pay off in this way," senior Faria Ghouri said, "it's amazing."

The team was the first in more than two decades to pull off three consecutive wins — a Texas high school in the 1980s was the last to do so.

The team of nine students scored 54,652 points out of a possible 66,000 in the rigorous 10-subject battle of wits, according to district officials. Students were tested in math, science, literature and art. They also gave speeches and endured interviews by judges.

Kimberly Ly and Hamidah Mahmud, seniors who have been with the team for those three years (the first as alternates, the second two as competitors), had doubts that it could pull off another win.

"You just reach some sort of plateau," Ly said, "but you can always push yourself. I'm really glad we came together."

Another L.A. Unified team — El Camino Real Charter High School, a six-time national champion looking to reclaim the top prize — came in second. The school, which also placed second to Granada Hills in the state competition in Sacramento last month, was able to participate at the national level after a rule change allowed more than one team from each state.

"In having the top two teams in the country, LAUSD this year exceeded our own amazingly high standards in the Academic Decathlon," Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy said in a prepared statement Saturday. Granada Hills' success has proved "once again that when it comes to the Academic Decathlon, our district is way ahead of the competition."

Granada Hills' national title marks the 14th for the district in three decades of competition.

Granada Hills' team members are Jae Kyung Chong, Seung Woo Baek, Hamidah Mahmud, Kelley Ma, Kimberly Ly, Kailin Li, Dayoung Kim, Faria Ghouri and Beatrice Dimaunahan. The team is coached by teachers Matt Arnold, Nicholas Weber and Spencer Wolf.

El Camino Real's team is composed of Ranbir Dhillon, Jenny Chi, Julian Zano, Peter Do, Jacob Hehir, Brennan Lincoln, Melissa Ngu, Tyler Wong and Johnathan Yih. Stephanie Franklin is the coach.

Members of both teams spent long nights and weekends preparing for the competition in Minneapolis, giving up much of their spring break.

The students focused not just on winning the team competition, but on performing well on their own and taking home gold medals for individual achievement. They said they wanted to nail their speeches — or, after struggling with math, finally conquer the subject.

"If they win one medal, they're satisfied," Franklin said. "They just want to do well, get a medal and come on home."

The students were proud of their effort.

"We all tried our hardest, we all came together," said Dhillon, a senior. "Knowing we put it all out there, you can't ask for anything more than that."

Now they can relax, shifting their focus to schoolwork, to spending more time with their family and, as one competitor said, to getting in some more exercise after spending the last several weeks hunkered down studying.

"Life goes on," said Chi, also a senior. She and others said they felt a mix of emotions after working so hard together. "This whole family, they're going off into the world — that's the sad part," said Zano, a senior. "We probably won't see each other again. We're going off to these different colleges, many of them out of state. The happy part is this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance: Getting to be with these guys for a year. That's nothing short of amazing."

rick.rojas@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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