El Camino Wins Statewide Decathlon

Times Staff Writer

A team of nine seniors from El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills was awarded the statewide Academic Decathlon championship Sunday, earning a trip to Chicago and a chance to defend the school’s national title.

With three national championships in the last seven years, El Camino is the second-winningest school to participate in the nationwide contest, which was founded in 1982 and tests students in 10 subjects, such as math and music theory. J.J. Pierce High School of Richardson, Texas, has won the most national titles, with five.

Last year, an El Camino team beat the Arizona state champions to win the national title. But this year’s team -- composed of all new contestants -- lost in the Los Angeles Unified School District contest to longtime rival Taft High School in February and entered the state competition with a wildcard berth.


That made the announcement of their gold medal finish Sunday at the state contest all the sweeter.

“It’s amazing,” said team member Laura Descher, 17, as friends and family crowded around the winners, snapping pictures and trading hugs. “I can’t believe it, [after coming in] second in city.”

Ventura County’s Moorpark High School -- the national champion in 2003 -- came in second in Sunday’s statewide rankings. El Camino’s winning score was 49,067.8 points out of a possible 60,000. Moorpark finished with 48,765.1 points.

Granada Hills Charter High School came in third, Edison High School of Fresno was fourth and Taft took fifth place.

Just five months ago, the statewide contest was in danger of being canceled because of a financial crunch and dwindling corporate support.

Running the annual decathlon costs about $250,000, less than half of which comes from entry fees, study materials and such in-kind contributions as office space. But after the problems were publicized, organizers reported a surge of contributions, including a sponsorship deal with a private equity firm that will cover much of the annual costs of the state contest.

As a result, this year’s competition was officially known as the California Academic Decathlon Presented by Leonard Green & Partners.

The Academic Decathlon was created by a former Orange County school superintendent, and the state has historically produced some of the most competitive teams in the country. California schools have placed first or second in every national competition except one, in 1992. California is tied with Texas for the most national titles, with 11.

El Camino’s teams are known nationwide for their crushing work ethic. For this year, students began reviewing study materials in June. When the school year started, they began after-school sessions that ran until 5 p.m.

The daily cram sessions were lengthened an hour each month until students were staying at school until 10 each night.

“I can’t believe it -- they even get together on their day off and study,” said Debbie Cohen, 52, of West Hills.

Her daughter, Lindsey, 17, said it was difficult to have a life outside the contest for a few months. But she said the sacrifice was worth it for the bond it creates with other teammates.

“It’s very difficult, but you have this amazing family with you,” she said, referring to her fellow students.

The statewide competition began Friday, when 50 teams from across California took a grueling series of tests in math, social sciences, literature, economics, art and other topics.

Sunday’s award ceremony was both formal and tension-packed, as students in suits and cocktail dresses waited nervously for winners to be announced in individual and team categories.

They could be a tough crowd when it came to the subjects they had been immersed in for months. Master of ceremonies Geoff Nathanson, a radio sports reporter, learned that the hard way when he mispronounced the name of Austrian composer Joseph Haydn, one of the artists who was the focus of this year’s music tests.

The proper pronunciation rolled toward him from the crowd like an admonishing wave.

Joining Cohen and Descher on this year’s El Camino team are Benjamin Farahmand, Sean Follmer, Lindsay Gibbs, Brian Hwang, Jihwan Kim, Kevin Rosenberg and Micah Roth. The national contest in Chicago is scheduled to start April 13.