Above, from left, Valley Alternative Magnet Principal Robert Clarke, Academic Decathlon members Aurora Quintero, Briana Lerma, Harrison Nguyen, Daniel Rokhberg, Priscilla Fuentes, John Garcia, Jax Febles and Nicklet Ponpoe and Coach Naomi Fried-Kokason.

It’s crunch time for the Academic Decathlon team at Valley Alternative Magnet, whose members are studying every spare minute in preparation for this weekend’s District championship.

With a first-time principal heading an entirely new leadership team, Valley Alternative Magnet has fielded its first-ever Academic Decathlon team, whose rookie coach and fledgling members are showing promise as the brain-busting competition nears.

Guided by Principal Robert Clarke and their coach, Naomi Fried-Kokason, the four seniors and three juniors have been spending six hours a day – before and after school, plus weekends and holidays – preparing for the contest. This Saturday, they will join 500 students from 56 other schools in the first day of competition to represent L.A. Unified in the state finals.

“We started our team literally from scratch, and have received an amazing commitment from the kids,” Clarke said. “There is a lot of camaraderie and support. There’s no one-upmanship – instead, it’s helping their teammate do well. It’s very refreshing.”

Arriving at the K-12 magnet after several years as assistant principal at John F. Kennedy High, Clarke found himself at a campus where students wanted to demonstrate their school spirit, but had few opportunities to do so. He saw Acadeca as the first step in his effort to “rebrand” the Lake Balboa magnet, with plans to revive the Cougars’ competitive athletic program, as well.

Clarke persuaded math teacher Fried-Kokason, who transferred this year from Chatsworth High School, to become the Acadeca coach. She embraced the challenge, adding the grueling study sessions to her regular duties at Valley Alt, as well as her work as an adjunct math professor at nearby Pierce College.

“We really had no idea what we were getting into,” admitted the veteran educator, known as “Coach Koke” to her kids. “We started out saying that we just wanted it to be fun. We didn’t do very well during our first competition, but we did better in the scrimmage last November, when we came in 23rd. Now we’re thinking, just maybe, we could even get one of the wildcard spots at state.”

Fried-Kokason also reached out to friends who are Academic Decathlon coaches at nearby high schools. Rather than straight-arming her as a rival, Stephanie Franklin, the legendary coach at El Camino Real High School, came and advised the Valley Alt students on their speech and interview techniques. The Valley Alt team also collaborated with their counterparts from Canoga Park and Monroe High schools, with Coach Koke offering tips on the math tests, and the other coaches providing support in their specialty subjects.

“It’s a competition, but that isn’t how they have treated us,” Fried-Kokason said. “They just want all of the kids to do well, and the help they provided was wonderful.”

Overseen by its Beyond the Bell Branch, L.A. Unified has long been considered an Academic Decathlon powerhouse, with its schools capturing half of the national championships since the competition was created in 1982. Granada Hills Charter, which is authorized by the District, is the defending U.S. champion – its third consecutive title and its sixth since 2011.

While several District schools have new coaches this year, Valley Alt is the only first-time entry.

The Academic Decathlon consists of 10 events – art, economics, essay, interview, language and literature, math, music, science, social science and speech, plus the oral Super Quiz – all centered around a different annual theme. This year’s theme is Africa, with students immersing themselves in the continent’s sweeping history, regional artwork, diverse music and complex economies.

“Africa has 54 different countries, and we never really learned a lot about them, but everything and everyone in history is affected by what happens in Africa,” said Jax Febles, the unofficial captain of the Valley Alt team. “And I Iove the music. I’ve been listening to it in the shower.”

Teammate Aurora Quintero said she felt compelled join the inaugural Academic Decathlon team at the school she has attended since first grade – and where she hasn’t been absent a single day.

“School just interests me so much,” said Quintero, who wants to major in pre-med at UCLA. “And, this is my last year at Valley Alt. It means a lot to be part of a team.”

Febles said he was also touched at the support he and his teammates received from Local District Northwest Superintendent Joe Nacorda, who bought the kids cobalt blue polo shirts and jackets emblazoned with their names and the Valley Alt logo. Nacorda was on the Acadeca team when he was a student at Monroe High School, and said he wanted the Valley Alt kids to have the same type of experience.

“I am thrilled and proud of Valley Alternative for forming an Academic Decathlon team,” Nacorda said. “It is truly is a team led by awesome teachers and coaches whom schools such as Valley Alternative can be very proud of.”

L.A. Unified will hold its two-day Academic Decathlon competition on Jan. 27 and Feb. 3 at Roybal Learning Center, culminating with an awards ceremony on Feb. 11 at Belmont High School. The top winner, and a yet-to-be-determined number of wildcard entries, will compete for the California championship in Sacramento on March 22-25. The U.S. Academic Decathlon finals will be April 19-21 in Frisco, Texas.