El Camino quiz kids win again

Times Staff Writer

The library at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills feels a bit like UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, so numerous are the championship banners hanging from the rafters. Now the librarians will need to find room for one more.

El Camino won the National Academic Decathlon for a record-tying fifth time Saturday, defeating teams from Illinois and Wisconsin that had hoped to crack Southern California's near-lock on success in the event.

It was the fourth year in a row that a school from Woodland Hills has won the national title. El Camino won in 2004 and 2005, then lost the state title last year to archrival Taft High, which went on to win the national championship. El Camino also took the national title in 1998 and 2001.

El Camino won the decathlon, which measures student strength in an array of academic subjects, with the second-highest score in the history of the event -- 52,148 out of a possible 60,000 points. El Camino students also took home 34 individual prizes, the most by any of the 39 teams competing.

"All these months of work!" said one of the team's two coaches, Lissa Gregorio, after El Camino received its prize. "It's awesome, awesome!"

El Camino came into the competition as the favorite, but students were nervous about two top competitors, Whitney Young Magnet High School of Chicago and Waukesha West High of Waukesha, Wis. Those schools finished second and third, respectively.

Before the winner was announced, at the end of a 3 1/2 -hour awards banquet, the El Camino students sat at a round table, heads bowed as if in prayer, squeezing one anothers' hands tightly. When the school's name was announced, all leapt to their feet, hugging and cheering.

"Brain shock!" said Venus Vakhshori, a senior who was the highest-scoring student in the competition, with 9,177 out of a possible 10,000 points. She was one of two El Camino students to cross what is considered the magic threshold of 9,000. The other was Helen Durand.

"It's rare for one student to score over 9,000; for two students scoring 9,000 -- wow. That is extraordinary," said Dan Spetner, a former decathlon coach whose Los Angeles company, Acalon Cards and Exams, specializes in preparing study materials for the competition. Spetner said he believed it was the first time that had happened.

Only one other high school, J.J. Pierce of Richardson, Texas, has won five national decathlons, and it hasn't won since 1991. California schools have now won 14 national championships since the competition began in 1982.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a statement congratulating the students. "These dedicated students are a shining example of our state's commitment to the highest standards in education," he said.

El Camino was one player short in the competition, in which teams usually field nine students. But Gregorio said the school was not at a disadvantage because its eight players were so strong. Academic Decathlon teams are broken into thirds, with judges taking the top two out of every three scores. That means that a strong twosome can beat a weaker threesome.

"They don't have a weak link on their team," said Spetner. He called it "almost a perfect team."

The Academic Decathlon requires teams to strike a balance of students with varying grades. Each team must have three students with A grade-point averages, three B students and three whose GPA is C or below.

One of El Camino's top competitors was C student Frank Soberanis, whose brilliance had hitherto been matched only by his indifference toward school. Gregorio said she believed that Soberanis' score of 8,920 was the highest ever by a C student in the decathlon. Decathlon officials said they couldn't immediately confirm that.

Competing against the other states' C students (the category is called "varsity"), he won medals in 10 of 12 categories, including gold medals for art, language and literature, economics, social science and the "Super Quiz," which this year had a theme of climatology.

"I'm so proud of him," said his stepfather, Chris Meade. "He worked so hard." Today, Meade said, he was taking Frank fishing.

The other members of the team are Shengya Cau, Sam Farahmand, Jiyoung Kim, Jennifer Yoo and Franklin Yu.



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