2009-06-12 / Community

Retirement of longtime aca-deca coach leaves void at Moorpark High

Future of team in doubt if replacement isn't found
By Sylvie Belmond belmond@theacorn.com

JANN HENDRY/Acorn Newspapers LAST LESSON—Moorpark  High  School  teacher  and  academic  decathlon  coach  Larry  Jones prepares to retire from team leadership and full-time teaching. He will remain on campus to coordinate the Teaching American History Project for educators. JANN HENDRY/Acorn Newspapers LAST LESSON—Moorpark High School teacher and academic decathlon coach Larry Jones prepares to retire from team leadership and full-time teaching. He will remain on campus to coordinate the Teaching American History Project for educators. Moorpark High School is saying goodbye to Larry Jones.

After almost two decades at the helm of the high school's nationally recognized academic decathlon team, the beloved history teacher is stepping down from the position that kept him at school coaching a group of 13 students until 8 or 9 p.m. most weekdays.

"It was a hard decision," Jones said, "I'll miss the kids, and the competition . . ."

Jones, 60, is also retiring from teaching full time at the school because he wants to spend more time with his family, but he will still be on campus to coordinate the Teaching American History Project, a federally funded program designed to raise student achievement by improving educators' knowledge and understanding of traditional U.S. history.

Under Jones' leadership, local decathletes won the county championship 11 times since 1993. They were victors in the state contest five times between 1999 and 2009, going on to national championship wins in 1999, 2003, 2008 and 2009.

Jones grew up in Malibu and earned his master's in education from California Lutheran University.

He began his teaching career in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1977 and worked in Santa Monica/Malibu Unified School District for about 10 years before coming to Moorpark High in 1989.

As a young man, Jones said his goal was to become a journalism teacher and a winning baseball coach.

The opportunity to guide a group of students to a championship presented itself when former MHS Principal Cary Dritz told Jones he wanted to put the local school on the map.

But the opportunity wouldn't be on the baseball diamond.

"He (Dritz) wanted to boost the academic reputation of the local school," said Jones, who was invited to lead an existing after-school Moorpark decathlon program that had been established by an English teacher.

"Instead of coaching a baseball team to state, I did the aca deca," Jones said.

Jones said his biggest inspiration to stick with the academic decathlon team was John Pierson, a teacher at Thousand Oaks High School who coached a competitive decathlon team in the early 1990s.

"He ran a really good program. He would spend the summer organizing information for students. Until we took over in 1993, he had the highest scoring team in Ventura County," the retiring coach said.

Jones said most of his work with decathletes involved team building—selecting students who can bond together and keep positive attitudes. After that, his job has been to ensure that students had plenty of opportunities to study and help one another.

"The goal is to get each student to a point where they don't want to let teammates down," he said. "The kids have to be willing to make individual sacrifices for the common good."

Jones announced his intentions to step away from coaching last year, hoping that someone would come in as a co-coach to help ease his transition out. He said he's disappointed that no one has stepped forward to take his place yet, but remains optimistic for the future.

"I would love to see the program continue. I think it should be bigger than any one person," he said.

Jones doesn't buy the argument that his shoes are too big to fill.

"If we won a national championship in a sport, we would still have that sport next year, even if the coach left," he said.

And budget shortages should not affect Moorpark's ability to participate in the decathlon because the activities are entirely funded by donations from parents and community groups, he said.

Michelle Bergman, a former math teacher at MHS who cocoached the academic decathlon team for two years before leading the team in 2000 while Jones took a year off, suggested that coaching duties could be distributed among several teachers to preserve the dynasty established by Jones.

"I can't believe he's done it for so long," Bergman said. "After two years helping the team out and one year doing it myself, I was exhausted because you have to put your all into it.

"He worked incredibly hard, putting together lesson plans and staying after school helping students," she continued.

Regardless of who steps in, students and parents said Jones' passion and commitment will be hard to duplicate.

"I can't imagine high school without the dedication and love that Mr. Jones has shown us and I will cherish every lesson and memory I gained from academic decathlon," said Kari Geiger, a member of the 2009 decathlon team.

Kris Sankaran, who broke several records in the academic competitions in 2008 and 2009, said Jones helps his students to actualize their potentials and overcome challenges.

"Without him it would have been very different. I wish that there could be more teachers like Mr. Jones . . . He sacrificed so much for us and because of that, we're willing to sacrifice so much too," said Sankaran, who will go to Stanford University in the fall.

"I've had a lot of coaches in sports, but the one thing about Mr. Jones that makes him an incredible coach is that he acts like a father," added team member Zyed Ismailjee.

The Teaching American History Project, started last year, is a partnership with California Lutheran University, the Reagan Library and several local school districts.

"I'm directing the program using $1 million in taxpayer money, so I want to make sure the taxpayers get their money's worth," Jones said.

Jones said he also plans to remain involved with the Active Citizens of Today service club, which he founded in the early 1990s to support local charities and conduct food drives.

He also hopes to offer job and college interview workshops for seniors and said he would assist with the decathlon team, if someone takes over the leadership position. He didn't reject the idea of someday returning to coaching or teaching.

"I would doubt it but who knows what the future holds," he said. "My father-in-law is 91 and still teaching."

Jones said he's going to stay involved in the decathlon.

"If we don't have a team next year, I'll lend a hand to the Oxnard High team," he said.

Jones has been married to wife Marilyn Green for 29 years. She is the coordinator of Special Projects for Moorpark Unified School District.

The couple has two sons: Alex, 26, a graduate of UC Santa Cruz who is in a rock band, and Nathaniel, a Stanford graduate who works as a union organizer and political consultant.

Both were on the decathlon team while they attended Moorpark High.

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