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Diverse High Schools Share Distinction of Statewide Excellence

Times Staff Writer

The two high schools do not appear to have very much in common.

Polytechnic High School and Whitney High School are 16 miles apart; Whitney is tucked away in suburban Cerritos and Poly is in inner-city Long Beach.

Security is tight on the 2,740-student Poly campus, where students show photo identification cards to enter. At the 947-student Whitney campus, students mainly use their ID cards to check out library books.

At Poly, the ringing of bells signals the beginning and end of classes. At Whitney, students are expected to get to class on time without the help of bells.

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Poly, which has been around since the early 1900s, is overcoming a reputation as a “bad school,” while Whitney has been praised continually for academic achievement in its 10-year history.

But Poly, in the Long Beach Unified School District, and Whitney, in the ABC Unified School District, were brought closer together last week when they were among 30 California high schools declared winners of the first Distinguished Schools Awards, given by the state Department of Education.

Honig Project

The awards are part of the California School Recognition Program, a project initiated by state schools Supt. Bill Honig to annually honor exceptional individuals, institutions and programs in the California educational system, said Susie Lange, public relations director for the Department of Education.

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Honig said: “The awards are recognition for schools showing the most growth in testing and other achievements. We are not only rewarding schools for doing a good job but hopefully other schools will be motivated to strive for excellence.”

Along with the 30 high schools, 60 middle or junior high schools and elementary schools were honored.

Walter F. Dexter Junior High in the Whittier City School District was the lone Southeast area junior high school selected for the award.

Seven of the high schools are in Los Angeles County, two in Orange County and three in San Diego County.

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The distinguished schools were chosen from among the state’s 1,500 junior high and middle schools and 800 high schools. Selection was based on a combination of factors including test scores, improvement of academic performance over the previous year, academic programs, extracurricular activities, educational atmosphere and parent involvement.

The schools had to finish in the top 20% academically or top 10% of the schools showing the most improvement.

School officials completed a 15-page application describing their schools’ programs, and state and local educators visited the campuses as part of the selection process.

Whitney, which has grades 7 through 12 and is one of five high schools in the ABC district, gives its prospective students an entrance exam in the sixth grade. Of the 1,000 students who apply each year, the school accepts about 250.

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Whitney students have scored in the 99th percentile in all areas of the California Assessment Program tests for the past three years. Their scores for the Scholastic Achievement Test in math and verbal skills, given to seniors throughout the nation, have ranked well above state and national averages.

“This is a validation of our program,” said Robert S. Beall, the energetic and effusive principal of Whitney.

“We are a family here. We are a business also. We merchandise kids. We get them ready to go to the best colleges and universities in the country. We are dream makers.

“It is not a ‘those damn kids’ or an ‘us-against-them’ mentality. They realize we care about them,” said Beall, 50, who has been the school’s only principal since it opened 10 years ago.

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Students come to Whitney from throughout the district, which includes Cerritos, Artesia, Hawaiian Gardens, Lakewood and portions of Norwalk, La Mirada and Long Beach.

The school requires a “B” average for a student to participate in extracurricular activities. Beall said he is most proud of the achievements of some of the athletic teams at the Whitney, which does not have its own gymnasium but uses facilities of other schools.

As proof that “brains and athletics do go together,” Beall said, the boys’ varsity basketball team, which has a team grade-point average of 3.40, won the title in the small schools division of the California Interscholastic Federation’s Southern Section.

The boy’s basketball and tennis teams, as well as two student-athletes--Egene Tseitenberg and Heather Susan Stewart--were honored for academic excellence by the CIF, the California Angels and Ford Motor Co. during a special ceremony at Anaheim Stadium May 29 along with other student-athletes from Orange and Los Angeles counties.

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Stewart, a 17-year-old senior with a 4.0 grade-point average, is as excited about the Distinguished School Award as she was about spiking the ball for the volleyball team or getting a hit for the softball team.

“We are really proud of this award. It is important to us. Every time there is talk about budget cutbacks, there’s talk about cutting Whitney programs. Maybe this will help us,” Stewart said. She expects to go to the University of California, Riverside, and major in business administration.

“This is great and we deserve it,” said Chris Barnes, a 17-year-old junior and co-captain of the basketball team.

Barnes, who has a 3.65 grade-point average and plans to go to medical school, had more than one reason to celebrate. His father, Harold, is an assistant principal at Poly High School.

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Harold Barnes is proud of the work he has done at Poly.

“I think the administration shows concern for the students. The kids recognize this. They know we care and they respond,” he said.

“There are lots of ethnic groups here. All different kinds. In the 1960s there were riots here, clashes and racial unrest. But we have overcome that. We have retreats yearly for students to understand each other,” Barnes said.

Ethnically, blacks and whites are about equally represented on the campus at 33% apiece; Latino, Asian and Pacific Island students each constitute about 10% of the student population.

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“This is a real melting pot--blacks, browns, white, Oriental and foreign students. And everybody gets along,” said Tom Siles, who has a 2.89 grade-point average and received an athletic scholarship to play baseball at California State University, Los Angeles.

LaShawn McBride, 16, a junior who is Poly’s student body president-elect for next year, said the award will make it easier for her to persuade top junior-high students in the area to join the track team.

McBride, a track star at the school who sports a 3.96 grade-point average, said she will make a special effort to recruit students from the Olympia City Sprinters Track Club for youngsters 7 to 18. The volunteer head coach of the club is Ernest McBride, her father and a track star at Poly in the 1950s.

“I let them know what a great school Poly is. It is not rowdy like a lot of people believe,” McBride said.

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“I think this award establishes credibility to the good job our teachers are doing,” said Poly Principal Wayne Piercy.

Even though this is Piercy’s first year as principal of Poly, his ties with the school go back many years. He graduated from the school in 1949 and was an assistant principal there from 1969 to 1974 before serving as a junior high principal in the district for nearly 12 years. He returned to Poly for the 1985-86 school year.

“I was here during the trouble years, when there were fights and unrest in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. We’re an inner-city school but we are meeting the needs of the students,” Piercy said.

Piercy said he and his staff are especially proud of the school’s magnet programs, which include the Program for Additional Curricular Experience, or PACE. Students from throughout the district enroll in the PACE program, which is geared toward gifted students who are college bound.

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“This award gives us a boost because everybody thinks of Poly as a bad school. Even my parents were reluctant at first about me attending,” said Shubber Ali, 18, who is in PACE and has a 3.62 grade-point average. Ali, a senior, has been accepted by Caltech, where he plans to study astrophysics.

In the past two years, the California Assessment Program scores in reading, writing, spelling and math at Poly have improved. For example, the average score for 1984-85 in math was 64.1%, and in 1985-86 it was 67.3%.

The Scholastic Aptitude Test scores also show a steady rise. The average score on the verbal portion was 439 for 1984-85, compared to a score of 406 for the previous year.

Poly qualified for the award by being in top 10% of schools showing improvement in what the state referred to as “quality indicators,” which include CAP and SAT scores and advanced academic courses offered. Whitney qualified by being in the top 20% academically in test scores and advanced courses offered.

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Unlike the “Cash for CAP” program established two years ago by Honig to monetarily reward schools for academic performance on the California Assessment Program test, there is no money involved.

However, all of the honored schools, including Dexter Junior High in Whittier, will be given flags and plaques in the fall, probably during a ceremony in Sacramento, said state Education Department spokeswoman Lange.

Donald Hoagland, Dexter principal, said he is looking forward to going to Sacramento to pick up the honors.

“This is fantastic. The award pumps everybody up. It will make the school climate even greater,” said the principal of the 650-student campus of seventh- and eighth-graders who last year scored significantly higher than the statewide average on their writing and math tests.

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Later, in the year, Lange said, outstanding programs, teachers and students will be singled out and given specific recognition.


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