It's been an uphill battle, but the Palos Verdes Peninsula High School Academic Decathlon team hopes this is their year.
The team has earned a wild card berth for the state competition in Sacramento March 22-24.
Peninsula came in eighth place out of 50 schools competing in the 2019 Los Angeles County Academic Decathlon in early February.
In 2012, the school's program was cut due to budget cuts. In 2015, the Aca Dec program was reinstated and only nine students joined, according to coach Anne-Marie Voegtlin. Only seven of those students qualified to compete.
But over time, both interest in the program and their rankings have grown.
The Peninsula Aca Dec team climbed in the rankings, placing 21st in 2015, then 19th, then 15th, then 10th ... to 2019's eighth-place wild card, said Voegtlin.
The minimum number to compete in the regionals is 15. But, this year Peninsula is 32 strong.
“A majority of the schools have been competing twice as long as my team has been," said Voegtlin, who added that a lot of teams have a daily Aca Dec class.
"Unfortunately, we don't have that luxury,” said the coach, who also teaches several English classes.
The Peninsula team meets only twice a week, which means students give up a lot of free time.
“Not having it as a class or assistant coaches, it's definitely a greater challenge, but they’re motivated and the adrenaline is there and I think that they’re going to be up to the challenge,” said Voegtlin.
The Aca Dec team offers something for every student. Voegtlin said there’s a common misconception that you have to have a 4.0 GPA to compete.
“Anyone can do academic decathlon,” she said. “It plays to different areas and to discipline and different types of learners."
In fact, Voegtlin pointed out that student below a 3.0 are among the brightest and are often out-of-the box thinkers.
“The kids with the lower GPA, when they get a taste of success, the inclusion and the atmosphere, the camaraderie, their GPAs go up. Then I have to start my search again to fill a varsity slot,” she laughed.
Many of the decathletes are juggling multiple activities—from drama to science research to the American Math Program—all on top of their regular studies.
Arpit Jalan, 16, is a junior and a captain of the Peninsula decathlon team. He divides his time between classwork, Aca Dec, music and science.
“It really depends on my schedule and how much homework I have, but I try to get in at least an hour a day maybe more if I can,” said Jalan, who’s a part of the honors division said. “Academic decathlon is definitely the biggest thing I put my own time into.”
Jalan said his brother, who was originally on the team, encouraged him to join and bring his strengths in history and math.
“Last year was the first year we made to the state competition in a while, so, there was that expectation and we really wanted to make it this year. We’re a new team and lost a lot of members who graduated so when we made it we were all really excited and happy about it,” he said.
One of Jalan’s weaknesses, he admits, is speeches and interviews. It’s one of the things he’s focusing on to calm his nerves about the competition.
But the team’s still in good shape because team member Minji Jeun, 17, has his back.
“My thing is speeches; I really like to write and perform the speeches,” she said. “And I also like to learn about the arts and music. My mom was an art teacher before she got married, so she always would take me to art museums and performances at Walt Disney Concert Hall. So, that’s mostly what we talk about together and she was able to help me with that.
“Our team is very different from other school activities—it’s more like a family which isn’t something you’d expected from academic decathlon,” she said. “We support each other emotionally and academically. It’s very close relationships and that’s a big part of our team and why it works. I’m sure if we put in enough work and we all do it together then we can do well.”
Also advancing to the state competition are West High (Torrance), winner of the regional title as well as Mark Keppel (Alhambra), Beverly Hills, Edgewood (West Covina), Rosemead, El Rancho (Pico Rivera) and Redondo Union.
The winner of the state competition will advance to the U.S. Academic Decathlon in Bloomington, Minnesota, in April.