Los Angeles, CA – In a typical situation, students in special education and on the academic decathlon team are not an intertwined educational entity. But veteran Foshay Learning Center resource specialist Mary Ann Avila sees things a little differently.

“A along time ago I was the gifted coordinator, and I also worked with special education (students), and I noticed a similarity,” explained Avila, who currently works with high school students who have a learning disability but take the majority of their classes with the general student population.

The similarities between the two groups included a failure sometimes to not fit in socially.

“I also noticed that when I would do field trips together, they kind of bonded.”

So when the task of serving as faculty advisor to the Foshay academic decathlon team tumbled into her lap, Avila saw the possibilities.

“At the beginning of the school year (in July), they assigned me as the advisor because my last name started with an “A,” but they assured me that I wouldn’t have to worry, it would be just until they could find somebody else,” remembered Avila with laughter in her voice.

Somebody else never materialized, and when Avila volunteered to take on the job because she figured her Costa Rican heritage would help her address the Decathlon’s 2009 theme of Latin America, people were . . . shall we say surprised.

“They didn’t associate special ed and the academic decathlon because, it’s usually the advanced placement teachers who are advisors,” Avila said.

But with a Master’s degree in special education and credentials in English and special education, Avila felt (with a little help from friends and family), that she could handle the coaching duties even though she had not thought about doing so in the 15 years she had taught at Foshay.

But Avila took the job a step further. In addition to the youngsters who signed up for the academic decathlon class because they wanted to be on the team, she coaxed about seven other youngsters (four resource students and three others who had yet to completely pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) to take the class as well.

From July to October, the class met two to three times a week for two hours in the late evening as well as on occasional Saturdays for workshops.

What she saw delighted Avila.

“The resource students were keeping up. They were really learning the material. We were talking about Darwinism, the Galapagos Islands and literature, and I noticed they were keeping up.”

So were the students who had not passed the CAHSEE, whom Avila described as underachievers, who really did not care about school.

“Whatever the sparks that the kids who are really motivated have–the high achievers were not really any smarter than the lower achievers; the key factor is just motivation–well that kind of just wore off on them,” said Avila of her resource and underachieving students. “They started to get interested in learning. There was a lot of Socratic seminar-types of discussions; their grades went up, their interest in school went up, and they became more social.”

And one of the resource students was even voted onto the decathlon team.

Avila said the 21 or so students in the class actually selected the team members making sure that all the seniors had spots first and then choosing who they thought were the strongest in each subject.

Now Avila and her nine-member team face their first contest of the competition Jan. 31 followed by the immensely popular Super Quiz Feb. 7 at UCLA.

“We just want to beat last year’s score–we came in 46 of 60,” said the first-year coach, who added that she is excited about what has occurred this year and also has the satisfaction of having changed a few attitudes.

“We kind of joked about that,” Avila said about the initial skepticism. But now as the team stands poised to wade into the first battle with a “special education” teacher at the helm and a “special education” student on the team, the joke is most decidedly on everyone else.