On Your Mark, Get Set, Think! : This Pentathlon Is a Workout for the Mind


It was a moment as dramatic as any in junior high school sports.

The gymnasium crowd, standing room only, cheered in anticipation. Banners shouting "Go Fairmont!" and "We Love Fullerton" adorned the walls. Parents cheered their children, students cheered their teams, players sat coiled at the ready.

The loudspeaker crackled with the question:

From which country did the Abbassids learn the art of papermaking?

A) Egypt, B) China, C) Greece or D) Spain?

A long pause.

The correct answer is China.

The gym erupted in shouts and applause. The victors exchanged high-fives. Parents embraced.

"It's great, isn't it?" said Jack Petrutis, the coach for Talbert Middle School team. "The kids are very competitive."

Such was the scene Saturday at Laguna Hills High School, where more than a thousand junior high and middle school students from Orange County and beyond gathered for the Academic Pentathlon, a kind of scholarly Olympics for seventh-and eighth-graders.

The students spent the day matching wits in a range of subject areas, including math, science, ancient Islamic history and the Industrial Revolution. The event, which sprang from modest beginnings in 1984, has blossomed into a multi-pronged civic affair involving parents, teachers, volunteers and children from more than 50 schools.

The program has brought to academics the school spirit and camaraderie ordinarily reserved for sports. More important, it has infused many children with an enthusiasm for learning that they may carry with them for the rest of their lives.

"It has really improved her studying habits," Susan Becher said of her 12-year-old daughter, Alison, a student and pentathlete at Brea Junior High in Orange. "The kids all work together."

The pentathlon, sponsored by the Orange County Department of Education and the Orange County Teachers Federal Credit Union, is hugely popular. On Saturday morning, the parking lot at Laguna Hills High School was as packed as a shopping mall's. The gym was so jammed for the Super Quiz that many parents, brothers and sisters sat on the floor. Volunteers served as proctors during the exams. During breaks, families sat outside and ate lunch together.

"This is a great thing for the community," said Pat Nixon, whose 13-year-old son, Christopher, competes for the Talbert Middle School team. Her daughter, Elenna, was also on the team.

"The kids motivate each other," Nixon said. "It teaches how very important academics are."

There are benefits for the parents too: "We learn a lot from them," Bob Nixon said.

The Pentathlon is much more inclusive than sports, where only the best kids usually play. Students with "A" grade averages play on teams against kids with "A" averages. Students with "B" averages and "C" averages form their own teams.

Parents and teachers say the program is so successful that they are forced to constantly replace the students on the "C" teams because their grades improve so quickly.

"Sometimes it really turns a kid around," said Sharon Nelson, the Pentathlon coordinator.

The Super Quiz, in which teams of students answer questions for points, is the sole public part of the competition. Students also take examinations in science, math and literature. The students begin preparing for the competition months in advance.

"I got some right, and some wrong," said Colin Walker, a seventh-grader at Portola Middle School. "But it's fun. Something like this rarely comes along."

The program is a spinoff of the Academic Decathlon, a more extensive academic contest involves high school students across California. The state championships are being held this weekend in Fresno, with Laguna Hills High representing Orange County.

The team from Laguna Hills High has a long history of winning the Decathlon. They've won the Orange County competition every year since 1989. In both 1990 and 1991, they placed first in the state and second in the nation. In both 1994 and 1995, they placed second at the statewide competition.

On Saturday, the Laguna Hills team won the Super Quiz portion of the competition. The rest of the results will be announced today, but team members were pleased with the early victory.

"We studied a lot for this," said team member Andrew Ting.

Laguna Hills High Assistant Principal Frank Manzo said: "These kids are very dedicated and want to win."

Times staff writers Diane Seo and Julie Tamaki contributed to this report.

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