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Rising to the top

Acton school competes in Los Angeles County Academic Decathlon competition

Posted: March 1, 2009 11:48 p.m.
Updated: March 2, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Despite feeling nervous, the eight juniors and seniors at Vasquez High School kept one goal in mind when they arrived at the Los Angeles County Academic Decathlon competition.

"We just went into it trying to do better than what we did last year," said junior Chelsea Stewart, 17.

It was the first time the Acton school had a full team for the competition, and Kari Owens, a 10th-grade English teacher, was on her first year as the team coach.

The students answered questions about evolutionary biology and Latin American history, gave speeches and took tests throughout the competition.

At the end of the day, they placed 35th out of the 55 competing teams.

But it was their score of 28,921 points - a 15,387-point jump from 2008 - that caught them off guard.

"We were surprised that we did so well," said 17-year-old senior Kristina McClendon.

Those 15,387 points gave the school the title of the most improved out of all the competing schools.

Team members credit their coach's determined leadership style built on the importance of teamwork and loyalty.

"I learned a lot of history on Latin America," Stewart said. "Besides that, I have a new definition of teamwork because that was our main focus."

McClendon enjoyed getting to know her teammates.

"It was fun to bond and hang out and work toward a common goal," she said.

Her experience goes beyond memorizing and learning new concepts.

"I've learned that it's really important to rely on your team and just to not sweat the small stuff," she said. "Don't look so much at the competition aspect, but how you can grow as an individual and as a team."

Owens faced difficulties recruiting students for the academic decathlon team once training began in August 2008.

Students spent hours every week studying on their own, along with making time for team practice.

Other high schools have classes just for academic decathlon practice.

"They have a huge advantage over us," said Donna Loporchio, mother of 17-year-old Nicholas Loporchio, one of the team members. "Our kids have to do it basically outside of school or on their lunch time."

Despite the bumps, the students bonded.

"In some ways, we're kind of like a family," Owens said. "That's part of being at a small school."

Stewart is a junior and plans to be part of the team next year.

"Before the competition days, I wasn't going to do it again. After the first day (of competition), I decided that I will most definitely be on the team again," she said.

With every practice session after school and during lunch, Owens kept team work a priority.

"As a team, every GPA and every person is important on the team," said Owens, who volunteered her time to serve as the school's coach.

"Some of the kids with the low GPAs really realized that they have a voice and they are important," she said.

The award speaks for what the school can achieve.

"I think it's a great thing because a lot of people put our school down. A lot of people don't want to send their kids to the school because it's not a permanent structure," Loporchio said.

Along with Nicholas, Loporchio has a daughter in eighth grade who will be attending Vasquez in the fall.

"We've been thrilled with the teachers that my son has had at Vasquez High School - actually, throughout the district," she said.

"I think we have a great group of teachers that really care."


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