West High School senior Cameron Vilhauer is a C student. So are classmates Michal Simek and John Mangan. But this weekend they will be among the top scholars competing for one of the most prized academic honors in the state.
The Torrance trio, along with three B and three A students from West High, will compete against 500 students from 45 campuses at the California Academic Decathlon. The winner will compete in next month’s national contest.
West High’s team--David Ozenne, Doug Kunz, Jindos Yazdany, Beth Miles, Jenny Hardy, Gavin Wasserman and John, Michal and Cameron--will face formidable opponents, including Los Angeles Unified’s champion, Palisades High School. But they think their biggest challenge will come from last year’s state winner, Orange County’s Laguna Hills High School.
The decathlon, the academic equivalent of the CIF sports playoffs, pits top C, B and A high school students against each other in a grueling two-day competition that begins today at UC Riverside.
Students are tested in math, science, economics, fine arts, literature and social science. In addition, they have to deliver a prepared speech and an impromptu one, write an essay and score well during an interview and the Super Quiz--a timed drill and the only event open to the public. This year’s quiz topic is space exploration.
Despite the competition, West High academic decathlon coach George Floratos says his team has a good shot at acing the state match. The Torrance team won the Los Angeles County championship in November, nixing three-time state champ Beverly Hills High School. If their luck continues, West High will be the first academic decathlon team from the South Bay to win the state title.
“I feel good about it,” said Floratos, a chemistry and biology teacher. “They’ve done their work.”
Each member of the West High team studied more than 1,000 hours--during school, after school, on weekends and in the summer--memorizing encyclopedia passages and devouring entire issues of “Scientific American” so they could answer questions like this:
A rocket ship that is very far from gravitational sources maintains a constant velocity even when its motors are off. This best exemplifies which of the following?
a. Newton’s first law of motion
b. Newton’s second law of motion
c. Newton’s third law of motion
d. Centripetal force
e. Acceleration due to gravity
Doug Kunz, an A student and the only junior on the team, fires back the answer: “Newton’s first law.”
The West High team is difficult to stump. Try tripping them on a literature question--Which character in Isaac Asimov’s “The Martian Way” never appeared on Mars?--and eight voices shout, “Hilder!”
“The truth is,” said their coach, “you could probably ask them any question in the test book, and they’d know the answer before you could finish.”
Confronted with a complicated math question--Given f(x) equals x 2+1 for all x greater than 0, which of the following statements are true?--they instantly provide the answer: f has an inverse function for all x greater than 0, and the reciprocal of f is defined for all x greater than 0.
Floratos admitted that even he has felt intimidated by the team’s genius. “I fight it all the time,” he said.
Although A students are expected to understand such complexities, it defies expectations when C students are just as sharp.
Floratos said he is especially proud of the C students on his team. “Any one of these students could earn a 4.0 (grade-point average),” he said. “But they need focus. They need to be challenged.”
On his way to the library, where decathletesmeet in a cramped room on the second floor, Cameron agreed: “It’s true. I am what they call a classic underachiever.”
Leaping up the stairs two steps at a time, Cameron said conventional school bores him. Students sit. Teachers lecture. Assignments are due.
“Grades never seemed important,” he said. But at the county academic decathlon, the self-proclaimed underachiever earned a gold medal for speech and a silver medal for interview.
Michal is another C student success story. The Czechoslovakian immigrant, who moved to the United States with his parents seven years ago, earned seven medals at the regional competition, more than anyone else on the team.
At first, Michal said, he didn’t particularly want to be in the academic decathlon but was talked into it by team members. Then, he said, he got hooked on the loose but intense structure of the decathlon class.
Shortly before the county competition, Michal’s parents moved because of a job transfer. Michal stayed behind, living temporarily with Floratos and his wife.
“For the first time, I have found something I really enjoy,” said Michal, who will be reunited with his parents at the end of the school year.
“There’s such a wide body of knowledge you have to know.”
Floratos said he bombards the team with material and tests all year long. Beth said she has seven binders full of Xeroxed material.
Team members who have special skills, such as future physicist David, serve as informal tutors for the rest of the team.
“When one has a strength, they share it with each other,” Floratos said.
He uses the same technique when recruiting parents, all of whom are professionals, to give talks on their areas of expertise and to help line up guest speakers.
Floratos, who aspired to be a college professor, has been a junior high and high school teacher for 29 years. In addition to coaching a decathlon workshop every day, he schedules team meetings at his home every Thursday, and occasionally on Wednesdays, to hear guest speakers.
“It’s draining,” said Floratos, who has coached the decathlon team for the last four years. “I’m constantly looking for new material. They get bored very quickly.”
Each spring, Floratos begins putting together the team for the following year, working from lists of students who have volunteered, selecting those who have shown they are good test-takers.
Asked why C students are able to excel in the decathlon but not in the classroom, neither Floratos nor his scholastic stars had a ready answer. But the question nagged at the team’s collective gray matter like a blank test paper.
“I don’t know what happens. He gives us stuff and we just sort of learn,” said Beth, a B student who got the highest cumulative score in her category at the November regionals.
“It’s the challenge,” John declared.
“It’s peer pressure. It’s wearing that darn sweater,” said Beth, referring to the brown and gold team sweater they wear on competition days.
“It’s fear,” Cameron said. “What if I bomb? What if I let everyone down?”
A few students confessed they are nervous about the state contest. Jenny said her hands were shaking so hard during the last Super Quiz that her pencil rocketed into the air.
“As long as we don’t lose because of my score,” Michal said. All the team members said they share his fear.
Floratos advised them to stay loose.
“Enjoy the road,” he said. “It’s nice to win. It’s great to win. But there’s nothing wrong with second.”
But somehow, second is no longer good enough for Cameron, the C student. “I plan to kick butt,” he said, “then have fun.”