LAUSD schools gear up for academic decathlon competition

A pair of decathletes cram for the upcoming competition in California
A pair of decathletes cram for the upcoming competition in California
Vanessa Romo/KPCC
A pair of decathletes cram for the upcoming competition in California
Franklin High School AcaDeca coach Sam Cullens works with two of his decathletes.
Vanessa Romo/KPCC
A pair of decathletes cram for the upcoming competition in California
Franklin High School coach Sam Cullens writes questions on a dry erase board at one of the team's many study sessions
Vanessa Romo/KPCC

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You’ve heard plenty of bad about the L.A. Unified School District. Now, here’s something good: its academic decathlon teams rank among the best in the country.

This year’s local competition began over the weekend and the final round comes up on Saturday. But by the time quizzing begins, most teams have devoted hundreds of hours to studying for the 10-part competition.

On a recent weeknight, hours after the last school bell released most kids from the captivity of the classroom, a group of teenagers sat quietly at their desks. They’re not on Facebook or hanging out at the mall. But they are talking about fashion — or rather, business attire.

It’s an increasingly important topic for Priscilla Liu, a senior in high school. “I bought a new blazer 'cause I already had a skirt and a shirt,” she said. “So after I bought it I was really excited and I went home and I put it on, and then I looked in the mirror and I was like, 'Man, I look good!'”

All athletes have their uniforms — football players have their pads and jerseys, wrestlers have their onesies. The outfit that Liu described is the uniform of a champion decathlete.

Without concerning herself about sounding immodest, Liu goes on, “I’m really excited to put on these clothes and prove that I really belong there. I deserve a medal.”

Liu is one of nine students on the Granada Hills Charter High School Academic Decathlon team. They’re last year's national champions, part of a 13-year winning streak for L.A. Unified schools.

In fact, the district has won more titles than any other in the nation — and the competition is fierce.

That’s why, in addition to a class load that would make your brain hurt, these kids spend nearly every spare moment studying.

Take 16-year-old Hamida Mahmud. She’s the sort-of team captain and the diminutive dynamo might be your boss someday. Right now, Mahmud’s taking AP U.S. History, AP Calculus BC, AP Art History, AP Physics and AP English — half of which she “doesn’t even consider an AP” because she enjoys the classes so much.

Mahmud said that now that they’re in the academic decathlon season, the team is studying about 31 hours a week, roughly the equivalent of a full-time job.

Even the teachers make accommodations to give the students more time to study, she says, because "they’re so understanding and so compassionate towards decathlon."

For instance, some of the seniors on the team were excused from a statistics test for a few days while they crammed for the speech and interview part of the competition.

It would be easy to assume that the secret to a winning team is to load all of a school’s valedictorians on a bus and call it a day. But that’s not how an academic decathlon works. Each team of nine has to have three A, B and C students. And all of them compete in all 10 subjects, so there can’t be any ringers — everyone has to carry their own weight.

This year, 65 teams (that’s 600 high schoolers dressed in their business attire best) will dissect the virtues and failures of the "Age of Empire," this year’s competition theme.

This means they'll be answering questions regarding the literal meaning of the word "Tanzimat," the origin of the "noble savage," the rationale behind Belgian agents in the Congo demanding so much of their workers... the list goes on.

Across town, at Franklin High School in Highland Park, sits another group of contenders. They’re in the middle of an 11.5-hour study session. The teens started at 10 a.m. and worked through 9:30 p.m. with just a couple of breaks.

Late in the evening, it’s tough to tell whether they’re all a little naturally silly or if they’re just delirious from sitting still for so many hours in hard plastic chairs around a U-shaped table.

Like the Granada Hills students, these kids have impressive resumes. All AP classes, tons of volunteer work and some even have weekend jobs. But they caution people not to judge them, or any students, on their grade point averages alone.

"That’s not how you can tell if someone is really smart," said Alex Moreno, a junior and first-timer on the team.

Moreno’s GPA is somewhere around a 2.6. A solid C student. But on the PSAT earlier this year, the painfully shy boy scored a 220 out of 240.

“People look at my GPA and they see that I’m a C student, and they look at my test scores and they have trouble understanding, 'cause those two don’t really mix,” he said. “But school has never really interested me, and I just didn’t like doing the homework.”

Teacher Sam Cullen took over Franklin’s academic decathlon team five years ago when it ranked 58th in the region. Now, they’re fourth.

Cullen said it’s students like Moreno, incredibly bright but maybe unmotivated, that decathlon coaches work hardest to find.

“A lot of coaches would say you want to go after the kids with the high test scores, because decathlon is a competition of points.” But he’s found it’s a mistake to go after the kids that just want the numbers.

“You have that innate interest, plus hard work, you’re going to end up with a darn good decathlete,” he said.

And it’s how you end up with a fashionable decathlete. Practicing her competition speech, senior Wendy Renteria wears her casual decathlon “uniform” — a letterman sweater and a pair of black oxfords.

The topic is "Geek Chic" — the preferred uniform that’s suddenly on the radar of ballers and fashionistas everywhere.

“We will enjoy it while it lasts," Renteria said. "But once the trend passes, we’ll probably still be rocking the same high-water jeans and bow ties.”

Lucky for these kids, smart never goes out of style.