Taft High Team Wins U.S. Title in Academic Decathlon Competition

Times Staff Writer

A team of seniors from Los Angeles' Taft High School, after matching wits for two days with some of the nation's brightest high school students on subjects ranging from physics to fine arts, on Monday were declared winners of the U.S. Academic Decathlon.

It was the second time in three years that a Los Angeles school has won the coveted national title. In 1987, a team from Marshall High School in Silver Lake became the first Los Angeles Unified School District team to win the decathlon. Taft, in Woodland Hills, placed second in last year's competition.

Taft team members leaped, screamed and hugged each other and their parents after the announcement at the awards banquet Monday for the nearly 400 students who were entered in the 10-subject academic contest.

"We are so high right now, I don't know when we're going to come down," said Taft team member Shawn Canter.

Since August, the nine Taft students had studied together in class, after school and on weekends, poring over study outlines and preparing for tests in geography, mathematics, economics and literature. Students were also required to deliver speeches, write essays and be interviewed by judges during the competition.

"After nine months, this is the baby," Canter said.

The Taft team scored 45,857 out of a possible 60,000 points to defeat teams representing 36 states, as well as Northern Ireland and Brazil. Taft represented California in the national competition after winning the state title in March for the second year in a row.

"This shows the kind of education that is possible in our district," said Dan Isaacs, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District's High School Division. The Taft team captured the district title in November.

The Taft victory over second-place Deer Park High School in Deer Park, Tex., was particularly sweet, team members said. The team from J.J. Pearce High School of Richardson, Tex., narrowly defeated the Taft contingent in the 1988 national academic decathlon. There were no returning members from last year's Taft team, all of whom were seniors.

"I suppose it was just California's turn," said Ronny Harris, Deer Park High School decathlon coach. "When we fell behind in the Super Quiz, I started to get concerned."

The national finals appeared to be shaping up as a showdown between Texas and California long before the event started Friday. The Texas team had scored more points than any other winning team in the state championships, except for Taft.

The only clue of a California victory was Taft's first-place finish in the Super Quiz, the only event of the academic decathlon that is held before an audience. In the seven years of the contest, winners of the Super Quiz, which this year was on the U.S. presidency, have usually gone on to win the national title.

High Scores

The Taft team scored particularly high in essay writing and interviews, as well as in fine arts, geography and mathematics.

Under contest rules, the teams were divided evenly among students with A, B and C grade averages. Taft senior Michael Pocrass scored the highest number of points among all C students in the competition, earning $6,000 in scholarship prize money.

Marc Sarti earned the fourth-highest point total among all A students, and Andy Rosenthal also placed fourth among all B students.

Pocrass said he was surprised by his showing because he, as well as teammates, believed that the tests in the national Academic Decathlon were more difficult than those in the state finals.

Coach Surprised

"I was totally surprised," said Arthur Berchin, the Taft English teacher who coaches the academic decathlon team. Both the Texas and California teams were called to stand in front of the assembled students before the judges announced the overall winner.

"They took so long I was going into cardiac arrest," Taft team member Rosenthal said.

But Taft's Rodney Crump, who won four individual medals and followed Pocrass with the second-highest number of points among all C students, said all day "I had a positive feeling that it was our time to win."

Berchin, who quit an administrative post at UCLA to teach the Taft group, said he is relieved that the competition is over.

"I don't want to be their teacher, and I don't want to be their coach anymore," Berchin said. "I just want to enjoy them."

On the Taft campus Monday, there was joy and pride at news of the victory.

"They're much more socially well-rounded than people think," student body President Josh Stenger said.

He noted that the team includes a varsity basketball player, a drama student and a student government leader.

"You can't just call them nerds, because they aren't," said Stenger, a friend of many of the decathlon members, as he arranged the letters in a congratulatory message on the marquee in front of the school. "They all have other things to offer."

Junior Chris Allen said, "It's kind of cool to come to a school where they're into studying that much."

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