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El Camino Real wins state Academic Decathlon, with altered format due to coronavirus

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Bell High School Academic Decathlon students attended a study session at their campus before its shutdown.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Two Los Angeles charter high schools took first and second place at the California Academic Decathlon, with El Camino Real narrowly edging out its perennial rival, Granada Hills — wins that were in part a credit to knowledge of medieval pandemics.

The theme this year was “In Sickness and in Health: An Exploration of Illness and Wellness.” Pandemics were a subtopic, and participating students delved into hundreds of facts on global pandemics, including the Black Death of the 1300s. But as the competition drew near, they found themselves in a real-time lesson.

The traditional live competition in Sacramento was canceled amid the state’s coronavirus outbreak. Initially, the backup plan was an online competition proctored at each of the 66 competing schools, but that approach, too, was curtailed after the shutdown of campuses across California.

Instead, Academic Decathlon organizers determined a winner by tallying up scores from the previous regional competition and adding in new scores from an essay contest, scores that ended up important in determining the winner.

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Without the essay, the highest point total belonged narrowly to Granada Hills, the defending national champion. But the essays flipped the results — narrowly, according to Ken Scarberry, executive director of the California Academic Decathlon.

In the end, El Camino Real, located in Woodland Hills, had 47,985.40 points, and Granada Hills had 47,905.50.

A similar turnabout had happened between the two schools in their regional competition, which El Camino Real also won, although both teams easily qualified for a state-level rematch against teams from across California, Scarberry said.

The nine-person Granada Hills team had the most points on the objective tests, which cover art, economics, literature, mathematics, music, science and social science. On these tests, the answers are either right or wrong.

But this year’s El Camino team had the edge in the subjectively judged contests. At the regional level, those included essay, speech and interview.

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El Camino and Granada Hills compete in a special division that includes local charter schools. Both schools are privately managed but overseen by L.A. Unified School District.

The students on the winning El Camino team are Jason Inaba, Kelly Tamura, Allison Yan, Amir Heshmatipour, Mariana Vasquez, Katherine Ylarde, Asher Levich, Dylan Sherrill and Riley Samuels. The team is coached by Stephanie Franklin.

On Friday, decathlete students took part in an unproctored online competition that became, in essence, an exhibition event. The results were not used to determine the state champion, although students will receive their scores.

Decathlon participants on top teams often study 30-plus hours per week for months in preparation, and losing the chance to travel to compete is a blow to the top teams.

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“The Sacramento trip is the first thing that comes to mind when I think about the decathlon,” said senior and co-captain Diego Mora of Bell High School, whose team finished first in the L.A. Unified division and had the seventh-highest score in the state.

“All the memories and the experience I got to have with this team,” he said, “everybody on this team has worked really hard for it.”

His teammate Armando Aguilar said he, too, was disappointed but understood why schools had to be closed and events canceled.

“The government does take on an important role when protecting the safety of, in this case, Americans,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of the time in history, when the government did take a stand and did actively try to protect the people’s health, we did see a diminishing in that plague outbreak and eventually an eradication of the disease.”


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