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Grant High School wins L.A. Unified Academic Decathlon in a year of firsts

Grant High School's academic decathlon team
The Grant High School team that won the L.A. Unified School District’s 2021 Academic Decathlon.
(Los Angeles Unified School District)

Ulysses S. Grant High School in Valley Glen won the 2021 Academic Decathlon for the Los Angeles Unified School District, marking a year of firsts: the school’s first-ever win, the first virtual contest and the first time their last-minute cram sessions did not include boxes of shared Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

This was more than a big win for the high school, which serves a diverse and primarily working-class student body from the Van Nuys and North Hollywood area. For team members, it was a lifeline that helped them fend off the isolation of distance learning.

“I guess school sort of feels like an endless cycle at times, but knowing I have Decathlon right after Zoom classes is over, and we’re working toward regionals, toward state — it really just is a motivation that keeps me going,” said Yadira Castillo, who earned the highest individual score among LAUSD contestants. The next-highest scorers were Madison Sznicer from Northridge Academy High and Yadira’s Grant teammate Vivian Le.

Yadira, a third-year veteran of the decathlon, said the competition has been a saving grace during her final months of high school. The marathon study sessions over Zoom — sometimes stretching from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturdays and until 10 p.m. on weekdays — have been exhausting, but also provided a social connection that’s been sorely missed during the school day, when many students keep their cameras off during class.

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Teams from 48 LAUSD high schools competed in a series of tests focused on the Cold War.

“It’s a source of pride that the whole community takes part in,” said David Sanchez, the Grant High history teacher who coached the six-student team along with former decathlete Brennan Azizi. As a history teacher, Sanchez felt well positioned to guide the students to victory.

Team members studied intensely for multiple-choice tests in art, economics, math, music, science and social science, as well as prepared for impromptu speeches, an interview and an essay. The tests were administered online and the speeches and interviews were virtual over the course of two days.

In nonpandemic times, parents would pick up team members at 6 a.m. on the day of the competition and shuttle them to the venue, usually a high school. The teammates would do a final scan of their study materials — what they call their “cram kits” — over Krispy Kremes, and break off into different rooms to take the marathon of exams, with five-minute breaks in between. The nervous energy among the hundreds of scholars would be palpable.

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“You’re all freaking out at the same time,” Yadira said. “With everything being virtual, although we were just a phone call away, it was definitely a different feeling.”

This year, the teammates took the tests from their homes, proctored over Zoom, through a Google Chrome program. They gave one another quick updates in a group chat during their five-minute breaks.

“Grant has never made it to nationals, so that was one of our goals at the beginning of the year,” said Sanchez, who is coaching Academic Decathlon for the first time this year. “That is still a long shot, but it would just be a crowning achievement to everything they’ve done.”

Van Nuys High School took second place in the competition, followed by John Marshall High School in Los Feliz, Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets, Bell High School, Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies Magnet, Verdugo Hills High School and North Hollywood High School.

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These schools will join Grant at the state Academic Decathlon in March. LAUSD teams have won 23 state titles and 19 national championships. Winners of the L.A. County Academic Decathlon, which matches teams from non-LAUSD schools, will be announced Thursday night.

Before the state competition, though, Yadira has a lot on her agenda — interviews with Harvard, Columbia and Yale.


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