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Juvenile Court teenagers face off in a different kind of Academic Bowl

Stephanie Valdivia (Left) and Mercy Garcia (Right) of the winning team pose with their coach, Beatrice Rull after the Academic Bowl at the Autry National Center.
Stephanie Valdivia (Left) and Mercy Garcia (Right) of the winning team pose with their coach, Beatrice Rull after the Academic Bowl at the Autry National Center.
Mary Plummer/KPCC

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If you stopped by the Autry National Center on Thursday you may have been surprised by the heavy security presence.

About 40 armed probation officers roamed the museum grounds near Griffith Park in Los Angeles — monitoring exits for unannounced visitors, watching out for vandalism and making sure none of the 20 students participating in the 12th annual Academic Bowl taking place in the auditorium tried to escape.

None of the participating teenagers were from traditional schools.  Half came from youth detention centers in Saugus and Lancaster, the remaining were visiting from Phoenix House — a drug treatment facility in Lakeview Terrace. 

RELATED: Hollywood arts school gives struggling teens a second chance

But watching the students competing on stage, you'd never know that many were gang members or facing complicated legal and addiction problems. It looked like any other academic battle of the brains. The challenge was to outsmart each other. Students competed in three rounds, focused on the theme of the day: adding the arts to the national STEM education initiative, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The event was sponsored by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which runs the county's schools at juvenile detention facilities, in partnership with the L.A. County probation department. 

During the competition, a team of students from Phoenix House presented an elaborate power point linking different art forms to parts of the brain.

"Let's take a trip to a place called Broadway," said a student, as he introduced his project on stage accompanied by his fellow students.

The competition was like a mini-version of the national Academic Decathlon model — California is having its statewide competition this week in Sacramento. Winners there will move on to the national finals in Hawaii in late April.

The competition at the Autry was the final stop for this group of teens. But students still said the experience was transformative. Tony Shaw, 18, said preparing for the competition helped him discover tools within himself that he didn't know he had.

"It helped me realize how intelligent I am," he said. "I pushed myself every day."

18-year-old Mercy Garcia helped her team from Road to Success Academy at Camp Scott in Saugus, land first place by rapping a song that explained elements of art found in math assignments. 

"It was an awesome experience. It's something I'll never, never, ever forget," Garcia said. She won an additional award for being the top-scoring student of the competition. "I'm truly proud of myself."

Her mother, Rebecca Garcia attended. It was a rare moment for the two to spend time together. They see each other about once a month. 

"I couldn't hold back the emotion," she said  "I knew she had it in her, so it was really good to be able to be there and see that come out."

Mercy Garcia has to finish out her time at Road to Success Academy  where she's incarcerated. Still, she has her eye on bigger plans. She wants to go to East Los Angeles College and then transfer to UCLA.