Fresno continuation school takes on Decathlon

Nine students from Cambridge High School -- a southeast Fresno school where students typically aren't known for their academic abilities -- will be competing today in Fresno County's annual Academic Decathlon.

They're setting a precedent: Their team is the first from an alternative education school to compete in the county event.

"It's really hard and it's challenging, but I'm still doing it," said Jazmin Rodriguez, 17, a single mother who is a junior on the team. "We're getting a taste of what college is going to be like."

College has always been in the cards for Rodriguez, who opted to attend Cambridge so she could complete high school more quickly.

But for other students, some of whom wind up at Cambridge after dropping out -- or being kicked out -- of other schools, participating in Academic Decathlon has opened new doors.

Senior Ramon Aviles, 17, said he came to Cambridge last year at the start of his junior year. He had dropped out of Sunnyside High School his sophomore year and figured he was done with school.

But after coming to Cambridge, Aviles said, he decided he wanted to try to become the first member of his family to earn a high school diploma, which would "make my mom proud."

Academic Decathlon taught him he could aim even higher. He's now planning to enroll in Fresno City College after he graduates from Cambridge this year.

Aviles said he knew he could handle college once he saw he was capable of studying and preparing for Academic Decathlon.

Cambridge's Academic Decathlon team will compete today against teams from 26 other Fresno County high schools. The decathlon began last weekend with speech, essay and interview competitions.

Decathletes compete in several categories, such as science, math and literature. The competition culminates in a pep rally-style "Super Quiz," where contestants go head to head in answering questions while their supporters cheer them on.

"I think it will be a great experience" for the Cambridge students, said Jennifer Quinn, who coordinates the competition for Fresno County Office of Education. "They're going to see something outside of the classroom that will spark something."

Alternative education schools in California typically do not participate in the Academic Decathlon competitions, said Ken Scarberry of the Solano County Office of Education, California's Academic Decathlon coordinator.

"When you're talking about an alternative education school, it gets you excited that they want to devote that time and study," he said.

Academic Decathlon is both a class and an after-school activity for many participants. Each year the organization chooses a theme -- this year's is the French Revolution -- and the students focus intently on the topic.

The participants are divided into three categories: students with a grade-point average of 3.75 or higher; 3.0 to 3.74; and below 3.0.

Students are allowed to compete in categories above their GPAs but cannot compete in lower categories. In order for Cambridge to have a full team -- three at each level -- several students had to compete in categories above their GPAs, said the team's coach, Shelley Urbano.

"These are kids that typically hadn't been on teams or included in clubs," Urbano said. "We had to overcome all of the self-defeating attitudes."

The fact that the Cambridge team is from an alternative education school means they bring different talents to the table, she said.

"Our kids have seen that it's not always book smarts that carry you through," Urbano said. "They understand things from the gut because they've lived it."

While Fresno County's Academic Decathlon might be unaccustomed to continuation schools as competitors, that isn't the case in Madera County, where Urbano previously coached a high school team. With few traditional high schools, Madera County encouraged all schools to participate to widen the competition, she said.

It took a couple of years for Urbano, working with Cambridge officials, to get the school's Academic Decathlon team up and running. And that meant taking the time to prepare students for the program's rigors.

The competition doesn't scare the Cambridge students. In fact, most are excited.

"It's a lot of work," said Lawrence Williams, 17, a junior on the team who came to Cambridge from Sunnyside High. "But it's going to pay off."

Williams said he couldn't participate on Sunnyside's Academic Decathlon team, so he was glad to get the opportunity at Cambridge.

Although Williams and his teammates are nervous about today's event, they feel more confident after completing the first portion of the competition last weekend -- when they saw how nervous other students were.

The Academic Decathlon historically has been a competitive event that puts academic performers in the spotlight usually reserved for star athletes. Over the years a lot of emphasis has been placed on winning and losing, Scarberry said.

"We can brag all we want about our titles," he said. "But if we do, we miss what this program is really about. These kids have walked away with friendships, study and life skills. I think we kind of lost that along the way."

The fact that Cambridge has joined the competition gives Scarberry hope that the state's Academic Decathlon program will return to its roots.

And, he said, "I'm hoping that Cambridge can be a beacon of light for other continuation schools."

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