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Student team from Dorothy Kirby Center wins Academic Bowl

Riley won the first trophy of his life last week. It came two weeks after he graduated from high school at the Dorothy Kirby Center, a residential probation facility for youth with mental health issues where he has lived for 14 months.

Riley, 17, was co-captain of the winning team at the 2010 Los Angeles County Office of Education Academic Bowl, an annual academic decathlon-style competition for incarcerated youth in Los Angeles County.

Four teams of five to seven teenagers faced off in the final competition at the Autry National Center in Griffith Park. The contest included a “Jeopardy"-style quiz, a debate and multimedia presentations on topics relating to the settlement of the American West.

Three of the teams came from probation facilities: the Dorothy Kirby Center in Commerce, Camp Kilpatrick in Malibu and Challenger Memorial Youth Center in Lancaster. The fourth team came from the Phoenix House Academy at Lake View Terrace, a residential program for substance abuse and mental health treatment.

For more than two months, Riley and his six teammates spent two hours after school every day and 2 1/2 hours on Saturdays drilling for the competition, which focused on the American Old West this year. Riley put in extra time on his own, practicing on his guitar to play the national anthem and a rendition of country classic "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” at the competition.

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After picking up his shiny red and gold trophy, Riley sat down in a daze.

“It feels so . . . real. This is life, this is what I can make it,” he said.

In another week, the aspiring musician from Lancaster will leave and face life in the real world, which will include junior college and eventually a four-year degree at Cal State Northridge, he said.

“I’m so proud of him,” said Riley’s great-grandmother, Faith Ward, who has had custody of him since he was 8. “He’s going to be all right.”

The Los Angeles County Office of Education, which runs the schools in the county’s three juvenile detention halls and 19 probation camps, pioneered this kind of event in California for incarcerated youth. The Academic Bowl has been an institution in Los Angeles County for at least 17 years, department spokeswoman Margo Minecki said.

The Sacramento County Office of Education implemented a similar program two years ago, and others are considering following suit.

The court order allowing media coverage of the event barred publication of the students’ last names or information about their criminal histories. Because they are minors, their cases are not public record.

Los Angeles County’s juvenile probation facilities have had their share of trouble in recent years, including an almost decade-long federal investigation of conditions at probation camps and halls. County Supt. of Schools Darline P. Robles and newly minted Los Angeles County Chief Probation Officer Donald H. Blevins said the Academic Bowl is an example of the positives that often get overlooked.

“No system is perfect. We have problems,” Robles said. “That should not detract from the positive things that go on.”

The education office has not compiled statistics on the recidivism rates of students who take part in the academic challenge, but officials and coaches said they believe the competition helps give kids motivation to turn their lives around.

Alexander Pou, 21, is one of the success stories. His team from Challenger won the competition in 2005. Pou was 15 at the time and locked up after being convicted of assault with a deadly weapon. An honor roll student before he was incarcerated, Pou threw himself into the contest.

“It definitely made me realize my own potential,” he said.

Now a student at UC Santa Barbara, Pou helps with his family’s food packaging business and has started his own event planning company. He still keeps in touch with his former coach from the competition, Judy Warner.

Not everyone gets back on track, however. One of the students from Pou’s team is serving six years in the California Correctional Institution at Tehachapi — he went in for selling marijuana and got extra time for a fight, Warner said. She sends him math problems to work on.

For one family, the Academic Bowl was bittersweet. Samantha Sandoval was on the Phoenix House Academy team that took first place last year. The 16-year-old died in October after she was hit by a car.

Samantha was a natural ham who had dreams of being an actress, and Robles suggested the girl apply to Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. Samantha was going to enter the school in January.

Officials named the Academic Bowl award the Samantha Sandoval Academic Achievement Trophy in her honor this year. Sandoval’s father, Francisco Gutierrez, said he hopes the competitors would take a message from his daughter’s death.

“Live every day as if it’s your last one, because you never know if there will be a tomorrow,” he said in Spanish. “I think that’s the message that these youth can take.”

abby.sewell@latimes.com


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