Real Genius


Nine seniors from Woodland Hills' El Camino Real High School won the 2001 U.S. Academic Decathlon on Saturday, narrowly defeating the returning champions from Texas in the closest contest in memory.

Out of a maximum score of 60,000, just 21 points separated El Camino from James E. Taylor High School. The difference is equivalent to the point value of one or two questions in the 10-event, three-day competition, one decathlon official said. El Camino scored 46,547 points to Taylor's 46,526.

Whitney M. Young Magnet School from Chicago took third, but its score trailed the top two finishers by more than 1,500 points. A Wisconsin team and a second team from Texas rounded out the top five.

In winning, El Camino reclaimed the national trophy that the Valley school last won in 1998. Taylor High from Katy, outside Houston, won the decathlon last year and was the top-seeded team going into the contest, which began Thursday.

In the Academic Decathlon's 20 years, only California and Texas teams have been victorious, a shutout that has frustrated other states.

El Camino Real's students also did well individually in the competition among 500 students of all grade-point averages. In the decathlon's division for C students, Alan Wittenberg of West Hills took the gold medal and a $1,000 scholarship. Aria Haghighi, one of the team's A students, placed second in his division, which came with $750. Other teammates earned more than 20 medals in individual events.

California and Texas had been favored to win, but teams were looking to the final portion of the contest, the Super Quiz on Saturday, for an indication of which school would triumph. When El Camino, Texas and Wisconsin's Catholic Memorial High School appeared to have tied for first, the result did little to calm the decathletes' nerves.

But once scores from Friday were added to Saturday's results, Wisconsin won the Super Quiz outright, followed by El Camino and Texas. The Super Quiz counted for just 4% of the teams' scores.

Texas coach Cynthia Swetnam said she was encouraged by her team's showing, but with two other squads sharing first place, she could not glean much from the Super Quiz, which accounts for just 4% of a team's overall score.

"It's always a nice sign you haven't lost any ground," she said.

In the official Super Quiz results announced Saturday night, because of the decathlon's complex scoring formula, it turned out that Wisconsin's Catholic Memorial placed first, followed by El Camino and Taylor.

In addition to 55 teams from 39 states and their coaches, more than 500 cheering parents, teachers and curious local residents watched the 100-minute quiz at William A. Egan Civic and Convention Center. It was the only part of the three-day contest open to the public.

An estimated 1,000 computer users tuned in online, according to the Web cast's producer. Except for the audience, the Super Quiz resembled a test students might take in class. They sat at tables and marked their answers on a computerized form.

El Camino's cheering section numbered more than 30, including the school's principal, administrators from Los Angeles Unified School District and two former Academic Decathlon coaches. Relatives of El Camino's nine seniors wore matching T-shirts in the school's blue and gold colors, waved pompoms and displayed a banner for every correct answer.

The theme of this year's Super Quiz was "Concepts of the Self" and addressed theories about individuality in philosophy, psychology and religion. The multiple-choice questions tested students' knowledge about philosopher Rene Descartes' writings, Native American religion and Jewish rabbinical theory, among other topics.

Questions were drawn from a packet of articles that teams purchased, a shift in the decathlon's curriculum that has been criticized for promoting rote memorization over independent research.

The U.S. Academic Decathlon tests students in six academic subjects and in speeches, interviews, essays and the Super Quiz. Teams, which generally have nine students each, must be composed of A-, B- and C-average students.

El Camino's team--Kuo, Wittenberg, Haghighi, Samantha "Sam" Henry, Elan Bar, Walter Ching, Grace Giles, Dennis Kuo, Scott Lulovics and Ryan Ruby--won the school's eighth Los Angeles city decathlon in February and its fifth state championship last month.

"I'm not only proud of the team, but I'm so proud of how our school has pulled together," El Camino coach Melinda Owen said.

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