February 25, 2009 -- It’s 11:30 a.m. on an overcast Saturday, and high school juniors Dakota Glueck and Jimmy Biblarz are sitting on their desks in a second-floor classroom, counting how many species of fruit flies they can name. Somewhere after D. melanogaster, the shaggy-haired teens get stuck on a multi-syllabic word and furrow their brows.
“I think that’s a cichlid,” Biblarz says.
“No, dude, that’s a fly,” Glueck replies.
This isn’t the first weekend the boys have given over to the study of scientific trivia. In fact, by late January, they and seven other schoolmates at Hamilton High School had been meeting together for almost a year to parse dense texts in biology, history, music, literature and art in preparation for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Academic Decathlon.
Held in two rounds Jan. 31 and Feb. 7, the 28th annual bowl pitted teams from 64 high schools across the district against each other for a chance to represent Los Angeles at the state competition in March and a shot at the national championship. About 580 student decathletes donned game faces and school colors to take part in the grueling Super Quiz event at UCLA, hoping to prove their academic prowess. In the packed bleachers overlooking the competition, the message was clear: being brainy rules.
But Los Angeles’ hard-working pupils might lose this longstanding outlet to flex their mental muscles if funding for the program dries up, district officials fear.
“We’re all under major budget pressure in LAUSD,” said Cliff Kerr, coordinator of the LAUSD Academic Decathlon. “This program is no exception.”
Funding for Academic Decathlon had been shaky even before Kerr took over as coordinator in 2000. At its peak, the district’s budget for the program was about $275,000. Last year, it was about one-third of that.
Even if the district pays for 2010 competition costs, such as facilities and equipment rental, schools will have to buy the official study guides and cover travel expenses themselves — costs previously covered by the district, Kerr said.
“The full impact of what the budget cuts have meant for Academic Decathlon has not really hit the schools yet,” he said.
The program is one of many facing an uncertain future as the country’s second-largest school district anticipates a shortfall of at least $250 million this year due to the state financial crisis. The potential loss of more than 2,000 teacher jobs, arts education and funding for reduced-price school meals has largely overshadowed cuts to smaller programs such as Academic Decathlon, which has become an institution in LAUSD.
Los Angeles teams have won 15 state competitions and 10 U.S. championships since the national Academic Decathlon was founded in 1981. Jewish students and coaches have long helped fuel the success of the district, where El Camino Real and Taft high schools most frequently clinch first place.
“It’s really impressive,” Kerr said. “For a school district that gets kicked around all the time for not doing the best it can for its students, our Academic Decathlon kids are always phenomenal.”
But the ultimate goal of the program is not just another trophy in the case, he stressed.
“You have all these high school kids that are very competitive and very bright, but some of them have not come close to hitting their potential in high school yet,” Kerr said. “Then they get involved in Academic Decathlon, and all of a sudden, something clicks with them. Kids learn that through a lot of hard work and teamwork, they can begin to approach their academic potential.”
One Saturday morning a few weeks before the competition, the Hamilton High School team was beginning its fourth quiz of the day before noon, answering questions in evolutionary biology such as how many genes the first vertebrates had, and what the “Pitx1” gene of a stickleback fish codes for.
Over kung-pow chicken and egg rolls on their lunch break, the students recalled giving up their entire third week of winter break, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., to prepare for testing. The miraculous thing, however, was that they didn’t mind. “We have a great time,” team member Glueck explained. “We have a really good team and we love each other.”
That bond was evident at the John Wooden Center at UCLA on Feb. 7, where the 64 LAUSD teams gathered to face off at the high-energy Super Quiz, the final event of the competition. A, B and C-level students — each team is comprised of three students of each academic level — competed against each other, with seven seconds to answer tough questions on genetics, Charles Darwin’s theories and adaptation.
District officials won’t know whether LAUSD will have money in its budget to fund the program next year until after the state competition March 13-16. “I hope we have a competition, but I have no guarantees or assurances,” Kerr said.
Hamilton won’t be traveling to Sacramento for the state championship — El Camino Real took top honors again this year and will represent LAUSD along with eight other qualifying teams.
But to Hamilton senior Gabe Rimmon, who also takes classes at L.A. Hebrew High School, it was more about the experience than the score.
“I’m glad I did it,” Rimmon said. “You win some, you lose some. I’m just glad we made it this far.”