WHILE athletes were accepting the last of their gold medals last month in Calgary, Alberta, another kind of competition was taking place in Los Angeles - athletics of the mind: the fifth annual Academic Pentathlon of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The winners of the Super Quiz were nine youngsters from an inner-city school in Watts whose efforts were no less Olympian than those of any athletes in the Winter Games. And as the Olympic theme played at Fairfax High on Feb. 27, these kids could not have been happier if they had broken a world's record.
The victory for the students of Markham Intermediate School was especially significant because it was the second year in a row that they defeated 79 other junior high schools in the district, proving to themselves and others that they aren't a one-time fluke from the ghetto.
``Every junior high in L.A. now knows Markham,'' says Alfee Enciso, a Pentathlon coach and English teacher. ``We're the Super Quiz kids.''
To the surprise of almost everyone competing last year, Markham students won the Super Quiz category, a most prestigious honor in the Pentathlon, since it is the only event whose winners are announced on the spot. The subject for this year's Super Quiz was the Constitution. The four other subjects covered (English, math, social studies, and science) in the four-hour-long written exam are scored and tabulated in April.
Troubled by recent gang violence and drugs, Watts, one of the poorest sections of Los Angeles, is better known for its racial riots of the '60s than for any budding geniuses it may have produced.
Set among four housing projects, which have spawned numerous gangs, Markham is in the heart of Watts. The school grounds, however, are well kept and clean, the graffiti on the walls neatly d routinely painted over.
``Markham is an oasis amid all the craziness,'' says Paulette Bowman, a ninth-grader who returned to help coach the pentathletes. She was a member of the winning team last year.
Three weeks earlier, the small group of students, teachers, and coaches were in the final, intense preparations for the academic showdown at the end of the month.
``The pentathletes' accomplishments are marred by these gangs,'' said Mr. Enciso. ``Fear is a fact of life here. Negative behavior is almost exalted.''
None of this is lost on the students participating in the Pentathlon.
``The Pentathlon is more fun than staying around with friends, because some of my friends like to be in gangs, and I don't like that,'' commented Gregory Johnson, 13. ``But it's hard to study a lot, especially when you don't have any study habits.''
And the studying has been intense. The six competitors and three alternates spent almost every day of their Christmas vacation studying at school and at home.
``It was hard to tell my friends that I was studying during Christmas break,'' said Jacob Diaz, 12.
``My friends think I'm a nerd. They think studying so hard is dumb,'' said Pedro Arevalo, 13, ``but I don't. I want to win so we can keep the trophy here.''
School pride at Markham runs deep. Every one of the pentathletes said that he or she wanted to win for the school, to keep up their newly found self-respect.
``We want to win to make our school proud of us,'' said Vu Phan, a seventh-grader whose family moved here from Vietnam 2 years ago, ``because the other people [schools] thought that we were nothing and we want them to know we can beat them if we try.''
``It's not just the award and all that, but to help out the school,'' said Nam Che, an eighth-grader and one of the two returning pentathletes from last year. ``A lot of people think you can't get a good education from a school like this.''
The fact is, one could probably get a better education here than at most junior high schools in the country. Markham is one of 86 magnet school centers in the Los Angeles district (elementary, middle, and high schools). These magnet programs have been springing up all over the United States, either as part of a mandatory or voluntary integration effort, and have for a number of reasons produced academically superior results.
In Los Angeles, they were originally meant to draw Anglo youngsters to predominantly minority schools. Most of the magnet students are bused in. Only three of the pentathletes at Markham are local students - the six others are bused in from areas up to 1 hours away.
The Los Angeles magnet programs offer a unique teaching approach or specialize in a particular subject.
Magnet school officials say the reason for superior performance is that teachers, as well as students, must apply to magnet schools. In the enriched, integrated atmosphere, there is a commitment on both sides to succeed.
The commitment is especially fierce at Markham. Their victories at the Pentathlon have been made sweeter, said Miss Bowman, ``because we not only won, but beat the other magnet schools.'' She added, ``After being here three years I could see the attitudes of the kids. They didn't have much confidence, but when we won [the Pentathlon], even the tough guys were a little bit proud.''
When the time came to try out for this year's event, more than 100 students took the tests, compared with only a handful the previous year.
``We tried to make it an `in' thing to do, not just scholastic,'' said John Hernandez, a science teacher and coach.
Indeed, these elite academic athletes from Watts are beating the odds society has set against them. They are proving Enciso's assertion that ``kids are kids everywhere. This year's win wasn't a victory for Markham, it was a victory for the L.A. educational system. It proves that education can take place everywhere.''