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Taft Team Is Cheered Like a Champion : Education: Student body honors the national academic decathlon winners with a rally usually reserved for athletes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Academic Decathlon team at Taft High School has received all kinds of praise since it won the national title in New Jersey two weeks ago. There have been laudatory words on the U.S. Senate floor, commentaries by newspaper editorial writers and admiration from educators throughout the country.

On Friday, the team was honored again--this time when fellow students at Taft honored them with the type of rally usually reserved for championship athletic teams.

“They’ve achieved something extraordinary,” said Arthur Berchin, the coach who led them to victory. “What better acknowledgment is there than the kind that comes from your peers?”

While the 2,700-member Taft student body cheered and the pep band, drill teams and school chorus roused the crowd, speakers talked about the importance of the achievement, given a demoralized school district and an underappreciated public school system.

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“All 640,000 young people and 200,000 adults in the Los Angeles Unified School District . . . are feeling like champions because Taft has made us champions,” said school board President Leticia Quezada. “To hear that the Taft team won the academic decathlon championship said to me--and gave us all hope--that if we continue to work hard and continue to fight against all odds, we will be champions.”

The cheering students shared the dignitaries’ enthusiasm.

Taft junior Gelareh Zargaraff, 16, said the title was an affirmation of her school’s educational superiority.

“It’s just one school in the Valley, which people put down, and we’ve shown that we can win in the whole U.S.,” she said. “Everyone knows about us now and it’s wonderful.”

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The team--Daniel Berdichevsky, 17; Chris Huie, 17; Michael Michrowski, 17; Sheldon Peregrino, 18; Rebecca Rissman, 17; Andrew Salter, 17; Kimberly Shapiro, 16; Stephen Shaw, 16, and Sage Vaughn, 17-- thanked their peers for their support. “Victory is temporary,” said Sage, while students in the grandstands chanted his name. “The best reward is your friends and the people you love and they’ve been there to keep me sane.”

It has been a long haul for the Taft team. The group, eight of whom will leave for college in the fall, toiled hundreds of hours to first win a spot on the team, then take the LAUSD title, win the state finals in Stockton last month and, finally, be crowned national champions at the competition in Newark.

And out of an estimated 30,000 students who competed this school year in their respective local, state and national competitions, the nine Taft teen-agers continuously garnered the highest scores in speech, math, fine arts, economics, science, literature, social studies, interview, essay writing and the oral Super Quiz.

At the national finals, Daniel won the top overall score and the group claimed more than half of the $30,000 in individual scholarships.

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This came at a time when disappointing California Learning Assessment Scores were dogging the district and parents and legislators throughout the state renewed questions about the effectiveness of a public school education.

LAUSD Supt. Sid Thompson, speaking as much about the boon to his school district as about the Taft win, was the most succinct in his praise.

“How sweet it is,” he told the crowd. “How sweet it is.”

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