Near midnight, members of the Taft High School academic decathlon team studied in the finest tradition of cram sessions: They ordered another round of snacks and added another layer of crumpled papers to the hotel room floor.
As Thursday turned to Friday, the first day of competition in the national academic decathlon, team coach Arthur Berchin paced his neat-as-a-pin room down the hall, fighting the urge, he said, to check up on his students.
“I told them that this is not the beginning; this is the end of the academic decathlon program,” said Berchin, who holds a Ph.D in English and left an administrative post at UCLA to teach high school. “If they don’t know how to study now, there’s nothing I can do.”
Despite Berchin’s worries, the team of San Fernando Valley high school seniors, winners of the California state championship last month, is considered the favorite here. The students of the Woodland Hills campus scored more points in the state contest than any of the 36 schools competing for the national title.
Taft last year finished second in the national finals to the J.J. Pearce High School team of Richardson, Tex. But there will be no rematch this year. J.J Pearce finished second in the Texas state contest.
Taft’s closest competitor will probably be another Texas team, however. Deer Park High School of Deer Park, Tex., recorded the second-highest total among state champions this year.
Berchin, a quiet yet competitive man, said he spent an hour Thursday talking with the Deer Park High School coach, hoping to gain some information that might prove useful in planning his team’s strategy.
Two of the Texas team members also joined several Taft students for lunch that day, but were warned by their coach not to divulge any team secrets, Berchin said. Decathlon officials had given each team general outlines of the subjects to be addressed in the competition. Each coach plotted a course of study based on those outlines.
“At this point, we wanted to hear his students say that they know nothing about economics or physics, that they don’t get along and are fighting all the time,” Berchin said. “But I told the coach I wouldn’t pump his students for information.”
For most of the high school students competing for individual honors, as well as a share of the $30,000 in scholarship prize money, the contest is serious business.
“To lose would hurt,” said Taft team member Shawn Canter, who has been accepted to Stanford and Harvard universities. “I hate to lose.”
Lisa Demsky, one of two girls on the Taft team, said the pressure to win has grown as the team advanced to win the Los Angeles Unified School District title in November, and then the state championship.
“As long as we’ve come this far, we might as well win the whole thing,” said Demsky, who has a 4.0 grade average and is the Taft senior class valedictorian.
During the late-night study session Thursday, team members spent more than an hour interrupting one another to tell a reporter stories from the nine months spent preparing for the decathlon.
Andy Rosenthal, for example, wants it known that he was kicked off the swim team because of the time required for the decathlon team. Rodney Crump said he would have liked to have auditioned for the lead in the school’s spring play, “West Side Story,” but had no time for it. Others said their social life has definitely suffered.
Team members teased one another with inside jokes, the meaning of which were lost on a stranger. After spending school day afternoons and Saturdays together for months, they were as close as a family, with the same sort of affection, rivalries and jealousies, their coach said.
Members even showed some Southern California media savvy, cutting one another short when a student ventured into controversial subjects.
In keeping with contest rules, the nine-member Taft team comprises three students with A averages, three with B averages and three with C averages. The team’s final score will be based on the top two scorers in each grade category.
The academic decathlon includes written examinations in the subjects of math, history, fine arts, science, economics, literature and the U.S. presidency. For Taft, those exams will be Saturday. The team competed in the other three decathlon categories Friday, giving prepared speeches, impromptu speeches, and being interviewed by judges about their backgrounds and achievements.
Despite the wide difference in grade-point averages, it is nearly impossible to distinguish in casual conversation the Taft team’s C students from its A students. They are all bright, Berchin said, and many are temperamental as well because they have grown accustomed to winning and working under their own conditions.
But team member Marc Sarti stands out even in this crowd, teammates said. Sarti scored more total points than any student in the state finals last month. He is a graduate of the district’s Portola Junior High School magnet program, which admits only students who score over 150 on IQ tests.
“From a teacher’s point of view, a student of his caliber is absorbing a larger percentage of instruction when it happens,” Berchin said.
‘Haven’t Opened a Book’
That may explain why Sarti dropped by only briefly to the team’s study session late Thursday and said, “I haven’t opened a book since winning top honors at the state competition.”
“I was sleeping, but I felt guilty about not doing any work while everybody else was up,” Sarti said to his teammates, who were studying until about 3 a.m. Friday. Others said they have to work hard on their weaker subjects.
Crump, who said math and physics are his weakest subjects, has received an acting scholarship from Hollywood’s Lee Strasberg Institute and been accepted by Columbia University. He said he joined the decathlon team to improve his academics.
“It’s been tough, but I’ve improved a lot since the city and state finals,” Crump said.
About 50 family members and school officials have accompanied the Taft team to Providence. Today’s Super Quiz, the only portion of the academic decathlon open to the public, will for the first time be televised on the Los Angeles School District’s Channel 58 at 3 p.m.
Students in the Super Quiz answer questions in front of a large crowd that cheers for correct answers. In the state championship, Taft pulled ahead near the end of the 50-question contest.
Although the Super Quiz results will be available Saturday, the overall champion won’t be known until all scores are tallied and the winner is announced Monday. The other Taft team members are Andrew Goodman, Michael Pocrass, Roy Rapoport and Deborah Sim.
Crump and several other team members got a bit of unexpected encouragement from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was staying at their hotel to address a convention.
“I told him that he was an inspiration to me,” Crump said. “He said, ‘Keep up the good work.’ ”