By Donna-Marie Sonnichsen
Ecstasy turned to heartbreak three days after members of Porterville’s Granite Hills High School team was told they would advance to the state competition in the 2014 Academic Decathlon.
The grueling two-day event held over two weekends ended Saturday with Granite Hills team members jumping high and tearfully hugging each other after being declared the top overall school, retaking a position they’d held 10 consecutive years until unseated three years ago by Strathmore’s Harmony Magnet Academy.
But in a news release issued late Tuesday, the Tulare County Office of Education said it should have been the other way around after an error in score calculations was discovered and revealed Harmony should have been declared overall winner and will — for the third consecutive year — advance to the next level of competition, in Sacramento next month.
“I deeply regret this mistake and the disappointment this news brought to the Granite Hills [team, coach, parents and Porterville Unified School District administration],” said Tulare County Superintendent of Schools Jim Vidak in the rrelease.
No other results were affected, including Granite Hills’ reign over the large-school division and Harmony’s hold on the small-school division.
Granite Hills Academic Decathlon coach Elissa Lombardi, a chemistry teacher, could not be contacted for comment on the development before story deadline, but during an earlier interview she said the longtime rivalry between the two schools carries well beyond the confines of the annual decathlon.
“Some of the students from both schools see each other outside of [the decathlon], and with social media word spreads like wild fire about what one says about another,” Lombardi said.
And while competition is a good motivator, Lombardi said she tells students that at the end of the day “the most important thing is to learn something you never knew before, because that knowledge will stay with you after the competition, and that hard work never hurt anybody.”
As for Tulare schools, they may not have finished in the top three positions, but for Tulare students the decathlon was a time for setting aside their own traditional crosstown rivalries in a show of solidarity.
“Everyone’s putting a good example out there,” said Mission Oak junior Gustavo Lopez, sitting in the stands with contenders from all three Tulare high schools while awaiting his turn in the finale, a relay-style question marathon known as Super Quiz. “Everyone is sharing, being a good person and being friendly.”
Tulare Western junior Richard Rios agreed.
“We’re all just one big family,” Rios said of Tulare competitors befriending each other.
Although Tulare Union’s team didn’t have enough participants to move onto the Super Quiz portion, team members were still in the stands shouting support and applauding the efforts of other Tulare students.
It was the first year five-year-old Mission Oak, which hosted the Feb. 1 Super Quiz and academic testing events, entered the Tulare County level of the competition, which also included rounds of interviews, essays and speeches by the approximately 150 competitors conducted a week earlier at Porterville College.
Mission Oak student Maria Gutierrez walked away with the large-school top award in mathematics, while Tulare Union’s Samantha Pena took top place in the large-school speech competition and Tulare Western’s Leo Chacon did the same in economics.
And while the local atmosphere of friendly competition prevailed Saturday, the decathlon itself is so competitive that Tulare County Office of Education organizers say the Super Quiz is deliberately scheduled to ensure other counties can’t send out “spies.”
“Every county uses the same pool of questions,” TCOE Assistant Student Event Coordinator Paula Terrill explained while the Super Quiz was under way. “We don’t want another county to get information for one county test questions, so every Academic Decathlon [Super Quiz] in the state of California is happening today.”
All 10 decathlon events follow the same theme, which this year is World War I, and it addresses all school subjects from art and science of the time to math and economics.
The annual theme, which remains the same throughout the February county, March state and April national competition levels, is released the prior spring, and all events draw from a 1,500-page student study packet most competitors begin working with from the first day of the school year.
But parents, coaches, organizers and even students all say the best part is of the competition is you don’t have to be an honor student because of its structure with three levels of competition covering low, middle and high grade point averages.
That equalizer is considered so important that each school must have at least two students from each level to participate in the Super Quiz, without which the schools lose their shot at the being the top school.
“Sometimes some of the varsity and scholastic [category] students outscore the honors because they know they’re in it to win it and it gives them an extra push and they don’t want to let their team down,” said the county’s Academic Decathlon coordinator, Laura Voshall.
And in addition to learning skills that will be helpful in job interviews and other aspects of life, the many extra volunteer hours of study time also boosts confidence and classroom performances, said Mission Oak’s team coach and English teacher Christel Anthony.
“I hear things they’ve been learning brought up during discussions in class; it’s really neat to see that that’s improved both their academic and their study skills,” Anthony said.
Mother Josefina Kirby loves the way it improved her daughter’s confidence both in taking tests and in her own abilities.
“It makes the kids feel like they can do more and achieve more,” said Kirby, whose daughter Andrea was a Mission Oak competitor. “It’s a great opportunity to express herself and feel better about herself. I just love it when she gets a passion for something and follows through.”
Tulare Union competitor Jacksely Rios said preparing for the decathlon meant spending lunch and before school “kicking in a little study before you do real work,” but was worth it because of the friends made during the competition, the chance to win awards, and the fun of competing both individually and as a team.
As for the final outcome, although results were initially described as a close call with only 170 of more than 15,000 points separating Harmony and Granite Hills, the recount revealed a wider gap of 1,560 points, with both schools receiving well over 30,000 points.
“It was human error in handling the data that resulted in the scores initially looking substantially lower,” said county Department of Education spokesman Rob Herman when asked why there was a discrepancy. It came to light during the mandatory count certification required before a team advances to the state rounds.
According to the official Academic Decathlon Web site, in 31 years of national competition a California school placed first 19 times and second place 11 times, and has held the national title for the past 11 consecutive years. Los Angeles’ Granada Hills Charter High School has been state and national champion since 2011. This year’s nationals take place in April in Hawaii.
The Tulare County Office of Education will post complete competition results later this week at: www.tcoe.org/academicdecathlon. Information on the state and national events is available at: www.academicdecathlon.org.
Decathlon victory secrets and strategies
For most Tulare County students competing in the Academic Decathlon, preparation is done in a club-like setting where they volunteer countless hours of extra study before and after school as well as on their own after school begins.
But team members and coaches of consistent small- and large-school category front-runners Harmony Magnet Academy and Granite Hills High School respectively believe the key is creating a formal class dedicated to studying.
And even though Harmony students start preparing in April as soon as the next year’s theme is released and students take home a flash drive to help them prepare during their summer vacation, coach John DeNicola said there are schools in other districts even more serious about winning.
“There are schools that have an eight-week summer school program where they spend eight hours a day for eight weeks in the summer,” DeNicola said. “That’s why they’re the elite in the state because they eat and live with it.”
Another Harmony strategy is bringing in as many experts as possible to address the wide range of curriculum each year’s theme is tied to. Because this year’s theme was World War I, that included a Marine Corps recruiter to talk about the Marines’ role in WWI.
Granite Hills’ coach also believes in a formal class structure to prepare.
“’Aca deca’ is not for the faint of heart,” said coach Elissa Lombardi. “Our goal was to make it to Sacramento and we did.” (That victory would be taken away three days later because of errors in scoring that resulted in Harmony Academy winning the right to advance to the Sacramento state competition next month.)
Granite Hills’ decathlon competitors also added a learning aid twist of their own.
“We named each other countries and we battled,” said 16-year-old Granite Hills junior Sendy Tapia. “It was a literal reenactment that helped me memorize everything.”
RESULTS Breakout Box
Tulare County 2014 Academic Decathlon Final Results
Top Overall Team:
Harmony Magnet Academy (Team A), Strathmore, with 34,533 points
Top Large School Team:
Granite Hills High School, Porterville, with 32,973 points
Top Small School Team
Harmony Magnet Academy (Team A), Strathmore, with 34,533 points
Top Students Combined Scores – Honors Category:
Kisha Thayapran, Harmony Magnet Academy
Daniel Seyedebrahimi, El Diamante High School, Visalia
Kisha Thayapran, Harmony Magnet Academy
Top Students Combined Scores – Scholastic Category
Eric Huerta, Granite Hills High School
Scott Noble, Harmony Magnet Academy
Melanie Rubalcaba, Harmony Magnet Academy
Top Students Combined Scores – Varsity Category
Katherine Scott, Harmony Magnet Academy
Adrian Gonzales, Granite Hills High School
Marianna Williams, Dinuba High School
Full results, including top students in individual competitions, will be posted by the end of the week at: www.tcoe.org/academicdecathlon.