Sophomore Judith Suchite starts her day at 5:30 a.m. in order to catch an early bus from her South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood to Beverly Hills.
After the hourlong ride, Suchite walks unworriedly onto the campus of Beverly Hills High School, a safe haven compared to Jefferson High, the school that the other teen-agers in her neighborhood attend.
"There's fistfights on campus every day," she said of Jefferson. "The graffiti makes it ugly, and you feel very unsafe. Here, you go into a classroom and it's quiet. Everyone is ready, with pencils in hand. People know what they're here for: to learn."
Suchite is one of 74 minority students who have transferred out of the Los Angeles Unified School District into Beverly Hills High through a small-scale integration program.
The multicultural program, as it is called, was a product of the early 1970s, when students at Beverly Hills High were, almost without exception, white and English-speaking.
The intent was to expose Beverly Hills students to people of different races and backgrounds, Assistant Principal Tanis Harris said. In return, transfer students would benefit from the high school's highly regarded academic and extracurricular programs.
"It was important for students to get an accurate picture of the world," school board member Betty Wilson recalled. "And the world is not all white."
Times have changed, and so has Beverly Hills High. Now, nearly 20% of the students are Asian, Latino or black. About 19% are Iranian. Among the primary languages spoken at students' homes are Hebrew, Korean, Mandarin, Russian and French.
Even so, the multicultural program continues to have the strong support of school officials, and it continues to admit about 30 students as sophomores each year.
This year, roughly half the transfer students are Asian, with the other half about evenly split between Latinos and blacks.
The multicultural students, as well as students from foreign countries, "are our highest-achieving students," Assistant Supt. Carol Katzman said. "They are some of our best kids."
Indeed, many of the program's graduates have gone on to college and entered professions.
But it wasn't easy fitting in. It wasn't easy walking with confidence through the hallways of what may well be the most famous high school in the nation.
For Korean-born Hyun Choi, now a senior, the first day on campus was "like being in a different country."
According to Choi, the glitzy atmosphere portrayed by the television series "Beverly Hills 90210" accurately describes what life is like at Beverly Hills High. The story line may be fictional, but some students really do drive luxury sports cars and live in mansions. Choi, who was raised and lives in Koreatown, felt overwhelmed.
"For the first year I never mentioned where I lived," she said. "I wanted to fit in so badly, at one point I got dropped off at someone else's house.
"But I realize I made a big mistake. When I (finally) told friends how much money I had, what my background was, they really didn't care. God, I felt dumb. . . . Now I just tell. I guess I grew up."
During her year of "being very fake," Choi's normally high grades plummeted as she focused on socializing on the phone and attending late-night parties. Luckily, a caring high school counselor called Choi and her mother together for a serious talk, which was enough to get her turned around.
Now in her third year at her adopted school, Choi has immersed herself in projects in the broadcasting department. She co-produces and sometimes anchors the school's weekly news program. And she produces and hosts a weekly talk show that takes a behind-the-scenes look at the entertainment industry.
"Everything is set up so professionally here," she said of the broadcasting department. "Even some colleges don't have the equipment that we have."
Another student in the multicultural program, junior Alyssa Au, was so distraught after her first few days at Beverly Hills High last year that she went back to her old high school to attend the first day of classes there. "I didn't know where I wanted to go," she said. "I got so confused."
After talking with her parents, Au agreed to give Beverly Hills High another chance. She felt lonely and missed old friends, but soon she made new friends and immersed herself in academics and sports. This semester, she is carrying college-level chemistry and history, honors English and French and pre-calculus. She also plays on the varsity girls' basketball team.
Because administrators don't want to "single them out," multicultural students do not receive special counseling on how to fit in, Harris said. They attend an orientation session when they first enter the program, but after that, they rely on the regular avenues of counseling and teacher intervention to survive.
But talks about fitting in could become routine as the program reaches out to a wider area, Harris said.
The multicultural program pays for itself, according to Assistant Supt. Katzman. State funding, about $4,000 per student, follows the child to the school he or she attends. And the students supply their own transportation.
"There is no additional cost to the district," Katzman said.
Assistant Supt. Don Fox explained that the district spends roughly $6,000 per student each year, but the estimate includes administrative and other overhead costs. The multicultural program is so small that it does not require extra teachers or services, and does not affect overhead costs, he said.
Multicultural program students are the only non-residents of Beverly Hills, besides children of city and school employees, allowed to transfer into Beverly Hills High, Katzman said. At Beverly Hills elementary schools, however, about 200 out-of-district students are granted permits each year. Most of them come in under a state child-care law requiring districts to take children of parents who work within its boundaries if space is available.
Until last year, all the multicultural students came from Emerson Junior High School in Westwood. After graduation, instead of going to University High School, successful applicants entered the 10th grade at Beverly Hills High.
But University High administrators complained that the program was drawing away too many students--in many cases, the brightest students. Parents enrolled their children at Emerson instead of at their local school, hoping they would eventually get into Beverly Hills. Other parents said it was unfair not to include their schools.
As a result, the Beverly Hills school district modified its agreement with the Los Angeles district to include 11 junior high schools throughout the Westside in the selection process.
Last year, only half of the 30 spots were taken by Emerson graduates, the rest by the other 10 schools. This year, Emerson's share dropped to a third. Next year, it is expected that the 11 schools will be more or less equally represented. The application process starts in February.
Ninety students competed for 34 spots this year, Harris said. The selection committee looked for students with good grades, an outgoing personality and outside interests such as music or athletics.
The program might never have happened had it not been for Lyle Suter, who in 1964 became the Beverly Hills Unified School District's first black teacher.
It was the era of the civil rights movement, and Suter, who retired as head of the art department in 1988, recalled that Beverly Hills students were acutely aware of the absence of blacks, Asians and Latinos on the campus.
"It was a time of turmoil in the country," he said. "The kids at Beverly, who seemed to have everything, wanted to become a part of this."
A group of Beverly Hills High students met with black students in educational symposiums run by Suter's wife, Joan, to discuss civil rights issues. The students went so far as to present a petition to the school board demanding the admission of minorities in order to provide an "integrated experience."
It was Suter who helped find a creative solution. It turned out that a group of middle-class black parents from the Baldwin Hills area, concerned that local schools were not adequately preparing their children for college, had begun looking around at the same time for a better high school. They arranged with the Los Angeles school district to enroll their children at Emerson Junior High and hired a private busing firm to get them there.
But when the time came for the children to enter high school, the parents ran into a bureaucratic brick wall. The district would not permit the Baldwin Hills children to attend University High.
Suter suggested taking these Emerson minority graduates into Beverly Hills. The idea gained momentum as officials in both districts decided it was feasible. Thus, recalled Suter, the program was born "quietly, without fanfare."
"There were many friendships made," Suter said. "It helped stop the misunderstanding just from people getting to know each other at an early age. There's beauty in differences. But you'll never know unless you experience it firsthand."