John Marshall C Student Leads National Academic Decathlon : L.A. School Smartly Outclasses the Field

Times Staff Writer

John Marshall High School of Los Angeles triumphed Monday at the U.S. Academic Decathlon, capturing first place and flying home with a weighty batch of medals and $16,000 in scholarships.

A high school from the Los Angeles Unified School District had never before won even a state championship in the grueling battle of brains for high school students.

David Florey, 17, a Marshall senior with a C average, scored the highest of all the nearly 400 youngsters in the competition. Florey, who describes himself as a nonconformist (and underscores the point with very casual clothes and a gold-hoop earring), beat all the participating A and B students from the 38 states.

When asked for the secret of his success, Florey charmed the awards banquet audience into laughter and applause by quipping: "I think I learned the value of hard work and pure living." He wore his traditional good luck charm--a loud blue Hawaiian shirt, a symbol of hip L.A. style--and was prominent in a sea of conservatively dressed teen-agers.

On a more practical level, Florey walked away with a $5,000 scholarship as the top scorer in the C-student category, as did Marshall senior Matthew Elstein for being the highest in the B group. Teammates Ethan McKinney and Ben Wolf each received $3,000 for finishing second in the A and B groups respectively.

David Tokofsky, the social studies teacher who took over as coach of the team last fall, said his team won because the students learned to teach themselves.

"They learned without bells ringing, without external discipline and without negative reinforcement," said Tokofsky. In the 10-event competition, Marshall scored 49,369 points out of a possible 60,000. In second place was John Foster Dulles High School of Sugar Land, Tex., with a score of 44,784. Third was University High School of Tucson with 42,525.

The Marshall team took first place in all the events except essay writing, in which it tied for third with two other schools, and personal interviews, in which it placed ninth. As individuals, team members received 25 medals, by far the most of any team.

Proud Achievement

Marshall is the first non-Texas school to win the 6-year-old national competition since 1983, when Beverly Hills won.

Located in the Los Feliz-Silver Lake area, Marshall has many students who come from low-income immigrant families. Thus the school was particularly proud of its victory over wealthy Beverly Hills and Palo Alto in the state finals last month. Three of the nine Marshall competitors were not born in the United States.

Last year, Marshall won the Los Angeles city title for the first time, but it lost at the state level. Parents and administrators credited Tokofsky and his assistant, Ann Choi-Rho, for inspiring and unifying the eclectic and sometimes unruly group of teen-agers.

"It's hard to find a coach who can relate tremendously to kids, who has the knowledge and who doesn't care about how much time he spends," said Marshall Principal Don Hahn, among 25 administrators, teachers and parents who flew to Dallas for the decathlon.

Said team member McKinney: "There are two reasons why we won. We had an exceptional team and Tokofsky pushed us."

Tokofsky said a victory celebration will be held at the school this morning. Mayor Tom Bradley and other city officials are among the invited guests, he said.

This was a week in the spotlight for Tokofsky. Last Monday the 26-year-old coach testified forcefully before the state Assembly about how low pay is driving young teachers from the profession. He said he is thinking about quitting teaching--but not before coaching Marshall's decathlon team next year.

Tokofsky and the team spent late nights and weekends soaking up material from a special syllabus of humanities, math and science.

The youngsters sacrificed social and family life and, sometimes, their regular homework. As a result, some of their other grades slipped. But all of the nine seniors on the 11-member squad have been accepted at the University of California, Berkeley, UCLA or other prestigious colleges.

Asked if he would recommend that other students join decathlon teams, Florey said, "I have this terrible honesty. It's hard as hell and it dominates your life. But if you're the kind of person who can take that, it will be good for you."

Florey, who lives in Los Feliz, said he expects to attend Berkeley next year in a liberal arts program but has not chosen a career.

"Totally miraculous" was how Hahn described Florey's high score--89% of possible points. Florey had been a C student last year because he was bored, Hahn said, but Tokofsky and Choi-Rho directed the teen-ager's abilities and energy.

According to Choi-Rho, Florey "took it upon himself to make a statement for all children like himself, that a C student can beat an A."

The decathlon requires two students in each grade group based on the previous year's report card, plus one alternate on each level.

Members of Team

In addition to Florey, Elstein, McKinney and Wolf, the team members are Gideon Javier in the A group, Christopher Nichelson in the C group, and Silva Darbinian, Howard Wu and Stephanie Shelton as the A, B, and C alternates. Wu won an award as the most valuable team player because of his leadership abilities. Also on the team were Susie Kim and David Chan, who did not compete.

The decathlon required the students to take six multiple choice tests, write essays, give speeches, undergo interviews and participate in a round-robin Super Quiz. The Super Quiz was the only event open to the public, and all its questions were about constitutional law.

The questions ranged far and wide: Shakespearean sonnets, polynomial algebra, Italian architecture and ionic bonding were a few of the topics.

One multiple-choice question on the Super Quiz was: "As a consequence of the 11th Amendment, judicial power provided in the Constitution was (a) reconfirmed; (b) abolished; (c) diminished; (d) unaltered or (e) enlarged. The correct answer was (c).

Choi-Rho said that because she and Tokofsky were new to the decathlon, they had no idea of how tough the competition might be. "So we assumed the ultimate," she said.

She added that she is afraid that she might unconsciously hold back efforts next year now that she has had a look at other states.

Tokofsky, however, already has a goal for next year. "We want to break 50,000," he said.

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