Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/local/articles/0130decathlon30.html

Newcomers to English grow on academic team
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 30, 2004 12:00 AM
Joelle Babula

TEMPE -High school student Carlos Ballesteros began learning English just over a year ago. Since then, the teenager from Mexico wrote an award-winning essay during an academic decathlon competition.

Ballestero's teammate, Mauricio Leon, also is a foreign-born student excelling in speech, language, and writing. He too recently mastered the English language and already has won several medals for his speaking and interviewing skills.

Both students are part of an ethnically diverse academic decathlon team at Tempe's Marcos de Niza High School. Nearly half of the team members began speaking English just a few years ago, but most of them shine in the categories of writing, speech and communications.

The nine-member team will compete against more than 800 students from 88 high schools across the state during the regional academic decathlon competition beginning today. The regionals take place at four locations throughout the state. Students from each team are tested in the areas of math, language and literature, economics, science, music and art. Each student also must give a prepared and impromptu speech and participate in an interview. This weekend's competition will determine which 40 teams advance to the state competition in March.

The Marcos students come from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, including Asian, Hispanic, Russian, Romanian and Peruvian.

The students say their love for reading and literature helped them learn the language quickly. Some also said that watching American television helped them grasp English.

"When I came to this country I was an ESL (English as a second Language) student," said 16-year-old Ballesteros. "It's ironic that I took third place in essay writing. It was the only subject I wasn't expecting to medal in."

The teenager said he hopes to win this weekend in the category of economics, his favorite subject.

Leon has his eye on the speech category. The native Spanish speaker from Peru has won three medals at various invitationals for his speech-writing and speaking skills. He said he learned English quickly by reading novels in English that he had previously read in Spanish.

"If you already know how the story goes, than it's easier to interpret the language," he said.

Leon says he enjoys giving humorous speeches and that this year he's written a speech on telemarketing.

"I used to pull pranks on telemarketers but then I became one for awhile and realized what they go through," Leon said. "They hate their jobs more than we hate them, so why give them a hard time?"

Leon's telemarketing speech elicited laughter from his teammates as they listened to him during a lunchtime practice this week.

Leon talks about his own experience as a telemarketer and how he once gave his pitch to a woman in three languages - Spanish, English and German - in an attempt to find her native tongue.

"The woman finally said to me, 'Man, anybody trying to sell me something in three languages must be worth listening to,'" he said.

The group's diversity isn't the only aspect that sets them apart from many other decathlon teams.

Unlike most schools, Marcos de Niza does not offer a formal academic decathlon class, so participating students do not receive school credit. The students at Marcos de Niza simply volunteer their time and practice during their lunch hours and after school.

"We're hoping to turn this into a class soon but right now, the kids are doing it because they love competing," said the group's sponsor, Betty Jo Heath. "They get no credit but they eat lunch together every day and practice."