Decathlon Machine: No Idling
The eight teenagers have just finished reading “Jane Eyre” for the fifth time. They have practically memorized a collection of 37 essays on global economics. They have taken 456 exams on everything from art history to atomic theory.
If brains were brawn, the academic decathlon team from El Camino Real High School would be one set of pumped Olympians. For a record third straight year, the Conquistadores will represent California at the U.S. Academic Decathlon, which begins Friday in Providence, R.I.
Sheer talent accounts for a large measure of the team’s dominance. Though composed of the requisite mix of A-, B- and C-grade students, team members averaged 1,440 out of 1,600 on the SAT and are taking a total of 22 advanced placement courses.
But nurture deserves credit as much as nature for the group’s success. The otherwise ordinary suburban high school runs a disciplined decathlon machine that is idolized on campus and envied by competing schools.
Team members spend up to 50 hours a week poring over notes, writing essays and quizzing each other in the “penthouse"--the fourth-floor teachers’ lounge they take over with boxes of notes in the weeks before each competition.
The demanding schedule leaves virtually no time for homework, friends or outside activities. One team member quit just after the triumphant city championship match in February rather than face the continued pressure.
“There’s no great secret. It’s hard work and more hard work,” said senior Adi Zarchi, 17, one of two decathlon members returning from last year’s team.
A devoted supporting cast also is part of the formula.
Coaches Mark Johnson and Dave Roberson have managed to recruit the help of nearly a dozen El Camino teachers, as well as two coaches from other L.A. Unified decathlon teams. The experts spend hours with the students analyzing poems, solving calculus problems and practicing speeches that will be delivered before panels of judges.
Seven of the El Camino teachers are paying their own way to Providence in hopes of seeing the school win its first-ever national title after two consecutive years of second-place finishes.
“Great kids, great books. What more can you ask for?” said Marcia Koenig, an El Camino English teacher who helped the team analyze “Jane Eyre,” the novel read by all decathlon teams this year.
Parents, meanwhile, make their own contribution by delivering home-cooked meals--from chicken teriyaki to salmon steaks--to the penthouse as competitions approach and study sessions extend into the night.
“It’s a good cause,” said Sajid Baig, whose Chatsworth restaurant, Tawakal Halal, has provided curry chicken for the team that includes his son, Taimur. “It builds self-confidence.”
El Camino has long enjoyed a reputation for academic excellence. The campus is consistently ranked among the top high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District on standardized tests, including the SAT. The school benefits from its location, serving a largely affluent population of students on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
The campus has a ready pool of talent available for what amounts to its elite academic squad. Victories are celebrated at school rallies with the same enthusiasm that greets football and baseball triumphs. Other schools say El Camino’s decathlon prominence has become synonymous with its name.
“If I could design a [new] program here, it would be a model of El Camino,” said Rich Erdman, coach of the Venice High School team and one of the outsiders brought in to teach chemistry after the LAUSD decathlon in February. “There’s a lot of respect for what they have done.”
Assembling a diverse decathlon crew working in unison is a big part of that accomplishment.
El Camino team members trace their roots to Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan, China and Israel, among other countries. The students speak 10 languages other than English at home--from Russian and Hebrew to Mandarin and Urdu. Four of the eight were born outside the United States.
Their grade point averages are as varied as their backgrounds--from senior Taimur Baig’s 2.55 to junior Nancy Fu’s 3.96. But even the underachievers on the team seem to overachieve. And therein lies one secret to the team’s success, say coaches from other squads.
Baig and senior Elana Pelman, the two C students, have outperformed most of their counterparts from other schools. At the California decathlon, Pelman earned the highest individual score among the 60 C competitors from the largest school districts in the state. Baig had the fourth-highest score, a feat he says boosted his self-confidence.
“I always had doubts about myself in school, but now I think I’ll make it in college,” said Baig, who has been accepted to UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara and Loyola-Marymount. “I regret not applying myself more.”
This year’s seven seniors and one junior may provide El Camino’s best chance yet of claiming the elusive national title. The school earned the highest collective score of any team in the nation--51,100 out of a possible 60,000 points--at the California decathlon. The school is considered a favorite among a field of 37 schools in Providence.
Competing in the national event will bring an exhausting year to a close. For months, the students have gathered every day after school, studying until 10 p.m. as each competition nears. On Saturdays, when others head for the beach, they have crammed for another 12 hours, breaking up monotony by playing cards.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” Zarchi said. “It’s so competitive out there.”
The demanding schedule has required sacrifices--lost sleep, old friends traded for new.
Baig gave up a chance to start at linebacker on the varsity football team. Senior Steve Chae has all but ignored the piano at home where he once played Rachmaninoff and Chopin. “My fingers don’t work anymore,” said Chae, 18.
And then there’s the constant pressure of juggling homework--finishing calculus during Spanish, completing English during a TA period, reading a chapter of history before bed.
“If there’s a report due, you pull an all-nighter,” said Nancy Fu, who earned the highest individual decathlon score in the state even as she earns straight A’s in four AP classes. “Sleep is overrated.”
There will be little rest for coaches Johnson and Roberson, even after the team--which also includes seniors Bruce Ngo, Carina Yuen and Michael Beatty--returns from the national decathlon.
Within days, the two coaches will start the grueling process over again: They will spend hours sifting through SAT scores, grades and other materials in the school office to find qualified candidates. They will hold tryouts--administering tests and essays--and choose a new squad before school ends in June.
They will hand out the study guide for next year’s Super Quiz topic, the brain. Johnson will spend the summer preparing a 50-page outline on ancient civilizations, the social studies topic for next year. And then, weeks before school starts in September, the new team will assemble in the penthouse.
“It never really ends,” Johnson said. “But I can’t imagine not having done it in my life.”
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El Camino Real Decathletes
Academic decathloecdtlon teams are divided into three categories of A, B and C students. Here is a snapshot of the grand point averages and SAT scores for the El Camino Real High School team.
Honors: Nancy Fu
Honors: Carina Yuen
Honors: Steve Chae
Scholastic: Adi Zarchi
Scholastic: Bruce Ngo
Scholastic: Michael Beatty
Varsity: Elna Pelman
Varsity: Taimur Baig
SAT scores (out of maximum 1600)
Five questions from practice tests taken by the students
1. Which of the following would NOT be considered a macroeconomic figure?
a) the tax rate of Angola
b) the international average rate of inflation
c) the unemployment rates in South America
d) the current account figure of Uruguay
e) the profit margins of General Electric
2. Which of the following artists is BEST associated with the movement of Formal Abstractionism?
3. What is the only pitched orchestral instrument NOT built on a twelve-tone scale?
a) the piano
b) the violin
c) the flute
d) the harp
e) the celesta
4. At what value of x does the function f(x)=2x3+9x2-24x+5 reach a local maximum?
5. Which of the following people became the leader of Egypt in 1981?
a) Anwar al-Sadat
b) Hafiz al-Assad
c) Robert Mugabe
d) Hosni Mubarak
e) Benazir Bhutto
Answers: 1. e, 2. c, 3. d, 4. e, 5. d