On Thursday, the nine members of the Academic Decathlon team from El Camino Real Charter High School had arrived in Sacramento and were settling into their digs. On Friday and Saturday, they’ll compete in an event they’ve spent the school year and part of last summer preparing for.
Over two days, they’ll write essays, take tests and sit for one-on-one interviews with judges, hoping to be the one California team that advances to the national competition on April 20-22, this year in Madison, Wisconsin.
El Camino Real in Woodland Hills has won more national championships — seven of them — than any other school. Banners marking victories going back decades fill the walls of the library.
The school hasn’t won the national contest since 2014, however. They’ve been displaced by another Valley school, Granada Hills Charter High School, which won the last two years and has five national wins under its belt. Both schools are large — 3,600 students at El Camino Real and 4,000 at Granada.
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But longtime coach and English teacher Stephanie Franklin said the competition is more internal than external.
“I tell my kids, ‘We compete against ourselves,” Franklin said at the school Tuesday as around her, team members hunched over their desks for last-minute cramming. “Everybody’s biggest opponent is in their own head, and their own doubt.”
“We just want to focus on us and how we can better ourselves and improve ourselves, instead of focusing on what other schools are doing,” said team member Eliot Yang. “We like this and it’s something that we enjoy, and I think that comes first, before winning … improving ourselves.”
“We want to master everything,” Yang said about the broad subject matter.
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This year, and every year, with few exceptions, all the students on the El Camino Real team are new to the decathlon. Few students can keep up with the intense study schedule, Franklin said.
“This is a lot of pressure. You have to be able to cope with that,” Franklin said.
Every year has a theme, and seven subjects from economics to literature to science are arranged around that theme. This year, it’s World War II, a subject team member Maya Teitz said attracted her to the event because of her German-Jewish heritage. In addition to the back-to-back multiple-choice tests on every subject, students write essays, give 4-minute prepared speeches and a 2-minute impromptu speeches and sit for 7-minute interviews. All of these they do individually. Together, they compete on a “Super Quiz” of multiple-choice questions.
“Because it covers so many subjects, it can attract kids who like so many different things,” said Teitz, who wants to study biology in college. “We all really like to learn.” Students make trade-offs to be on the team, sometimes dropping another activity, like sports or, for Teitz, drama. In the summer, studying for the decathlon is akin to going to school a month early, Teitz said.
El Camino Real’s team this year is made up of Sofia Diaz, Steve Hernandez, Trevor Johnson, Fernaz Mohamadi, Sara Oades, Maddie Russell, Chloe Smull, Teitz and Eliot Yang.
The winning team for the state-level competition will be announced on Sunday.