School Stands Out for Better, for Worse : Education: Fullerton’s Sunny Hills High is full of achievers, but a few of its grads have made grisly headlines.
Sunny Hills High is a public school with a zero percent dropout rate and no graffiti on the walls, a place where students brag about pulling all-nighters and compete in honors classes for the highest A-plus.
Jackson Browne went there. So did All-Star major league catcher Gary Carter. Its reputation stretches across the Pacific Ocean, luring Korean immigrants in search of the best in American education, and to the elite Eastern colleges where graduates flock.
But lately the sparkling test scores at the suburban campus have been overshadowed by a string of grisly headlines: A would-be valedictorian of the Class of 1993 convicted in the brutal slaying of an honor student. A 1990 grad accused this month of murdering his parents and brother. The 1988 Teacher of the Year charged with killing her lover, and another longtime teacher pleading guilty to molesting students.
The former postal worker who terrorized the county with a spring, 1993, shooting rampage is a Sunny Hills alum too.
“Our school’s awesome,” said junior Susu Irie, laughing as he stood in the school courtyard one afternoon. “We have everything from murderers to geniuses here.”
“Now that’s diversity,” chimed in senior Jason Fairchild.
At Sunny Hills--where scores of students sit with books open, pencils poised and calculators running during lunch--the peer pressure is not to do drugs or join gangs. It’s to earn straight A’s, rack up extracurriculars and break 1350 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test in the never-ending struggle to get into the best colleges.
Three-quarters of the graduates go straight to four-year universities. Of 399 seniors last year, 54 finished with a grade point average above 4.0; there were six valedictorians because that’s how many students finished four years with nothing but A’s in this school that is part of the Fullerton Union High School District.
“A lot of times, popularity is based on looks and stuff. Here, it’s how much you’re involved and your academics,” said sophomore Brian Kim. “When everybody is overachieving and going for it, it kind of brings other people along. It’s like a race--if everyone’s going fast, you go fast.”
Senior Esther Yoon added: “If I could sum up Sunny Hills in one word, it’s ‘hyper-competitive.’ ”
But students, parents and faculty say the competition is positive, pushing kids to their fullest potential. Fueling the emphasis on academics is the growing number of Asian families devoted to top-notch education who seek out the campus.
Founded in 1959, Sunny Hills was for decades a predominantly white school nestled in a neighborhood of upper-middle class, college-educated professionals. Now many of the homes, which range in price from $300,000 to $1 million, are bought mostly by Asian families attracted by the high school’s record.
Koo Oh, a Fullerton dentist who heads the Korean American Assn. of Orange County, said many Koreans consider Sunny Hills “the best high school in California.”
Some families even remain in Asia but send their children to live in Fullerton and attend Sunny Hills. Others from throughout Southern California borrow addresses from people who live in the school’s attendance area to make their children eligible.
In 1985, the student body was 71.8% white and 17.9% Asian. Now it is 48.4% Asian and 39.4% white. Four years ago, there were no “limited English proficiency” students--now there are 163. The shift will likely continue: Asians are 45% of the Class of 1995, 51% of the Class of 1998.
“They have a mini-United Nations up here,” said assistant principal Diane Hockersmith. “But when you get that many different ethnicities in a place, it takes a little to keep everybody happy and calmed down.”
Many students said they have individual friends of varied races, but that cliques form along color lines. At break, lunch and after school, Koreans dominate the center of the quad, whites mingle on the fringes of the leafy courtyard and Latinos--8.5% of the student body--gather elsewhere on campus.
Koreans and whites park in different rows in the student lots. There is a Korean Family Support Group separate from the white-dominated Parent-Teacher-Student Assn.
In a school newspaper column last year, editor Jhoanna Infante complained that even at International Day, an event lauded for promoting cultural awareness, booths were segregated by race and adult volunteers gave free food to students of the same ethnicity.
“The Asians don’t like the whites because they’re all sports and the whites don’t like the Asians because they’re all academics and money,” said senior Brian Ashton, who has a reputation on campus for mixing easily among Asian and white cliques.
There also are divisions among Koreans, who make up 27% of the students and 57% of the Asians.
Acculturated Korean-Americans tease “FOBs"--students who are “fresh off the boat"--and disdain the “gangsters"--Koreans who wear baggy pants, carry beepers and boast about their connections to crime.
“Within Koreans, there’s discrimination too,” said sophomore Stephen Sohn, who was born in the United States a few years after his parents came here from Korea. “If you don’t know your language, they make fun of you. Some people speak Korean to each other when they don’t want other people to understand.”
The changing demographics have coincided with Sunny Hills’ growing reputation for achievement. Long known within Orange County as an academic powerhouse, the school now stacks up among the best in the state and nation, according to test scores.
This year’s senior class includes a student who earned a perfect score on the American College Achievement Test--the first in the school’s history. Last year, there was a perfect SAT score--also a Sunny Hills first.
And there currently are 27 National Merit Scholarship semi-finalists on campus, the most ever and third in California behind only the elite private Harvard-Westlake school and Peninsula High School in Palos Verdes.
Some students and staff acknowledged that skyrocketing standards of parents drive the achievement culture.
“When I was in high school my parents didn’t even know what the SAT was,” said English teacher Kimberley Stein, the school newspaper adviser. “There are Korean parents here who don’t even speak English but know the cutoff (SAT score needed) to get into Stanford.”
Sohn said his parents expect perfection. “Anything below an A is failure. I hate that, so I try to avoid that by getting the best grades I can.”
Faculty and administrators attribute much of the achievement to the school’s International Baccalaureate program, a rigorous set of advanced classes that provide a global, interdisciplinary education. More than a quarter of Sunny Hills students take IB classes, and there are 55 candidates this year for a special IB diploma, ranking the school’s IB program third in the United States (out of 150 schools).
About 100 students each year apply from outside the Fullerton district to attend Sunny Hills, most attracted by the IB program.
The level below honors, “college prep,” is viewed as average on campus, though the curriculum is more advanced than that of many public high schools.
Students involved in IB often are overloaded with extracurricular activities. Both school counselors said their biggest struggle during registration each semester is talking campus leaders out of taking too many honors classes.
The most popular students on campus also are the ones with the overstuffed schedules.
“Since you go to Sunny Hills, you have to get good grades, you have to be involved,” sophomore Brianne Gates said as she sat in the courtyard in her black-and-gold cheerleader’s uniform. “You have to be the perfect student.”
Junior Shilpa Gupta said classmates “look the other way” when they hear she is not in honors math. Jimmy McGuire, a senior, recounted a friend saying, “Oh, I’d thought you were smart” upon learning that McGuire had 13 Bs over six semesters.
“People have a 4.0 and they feel inferior,” McGuire quipped. “I have a 4.3, and it’s like, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ ”
The campus atmosphere is more like a prep school or private college than a public high school. Honors students try to one-up each other on how much work they have or how little sleep they’ve gotten and brag about addictions to No Doz and Vivarin.
Guidance counselors Cynthia Martini and Don Joynt said they spend 80% to 90% of their time working with students on college admissions and even assemble applications to private colleges for the students (last year they did 500 applications for 200 students).
Each summer, history teacher Patrick Lampman takes 30 youngsters on a tour of Ivy League and other East Coast schools. Many students take expensive classes or have private tutors to prepare them for the SAT, and some hire outside college consultants.
It works: Last year, eight were accepted to Ivy League schools, eight more to Stanford. Seventy-eight got into UC Irvine, 65 into UCLA and 48 into UC Berkeley.
“People are planning for college from their freshman year,” McGuire said. “They’re working on their perfect transcript.”
“No,” jumped in senior Jane Kim, “They start earlier than that.”
But some complain that too much attention is paid to the top achievers, leaving mid-level students behind.
Senior Hiromi Hiraoka said her college prep English class was once told there was no money for a field trip bus because it was reserved for IB classes. Others said it is difficult for students who are not applying to the most competitive colleges to get an appointment with a guidance counselor.
“What’s average at Sunny Hills is kind of scary,” said Martini, the counselor. “If I had a child here, that would be a concern for me, because what’s average here is not average anywhere else.”
Still, teachers and administrators said the academic focus and extremely high motivation of the students makes Sunny Hills an ideal place to work.
For Lampman, who came to the school in 1988 after 15 years of teaching elsewhere, “it’s been an intellectual Renaissance.”
In addition to the much acclaimed IB program, Sunny Hills is the only high school in California to offer five levels of Korean. Starting this spring, it will become the first high school in the state to offer a double-immersion bilingual program in Korean and English.
Sunny Hills also takes an innovative approach with its limited-English speaking students, hurrying them into college-preparatory classes rather than giving them lower-level academics.
What’s more, Sunny Hills is one of only nine high schools in Orange County with an agriculture program, where students raise chickens, turkeys, pigs, sheep and steers on a seven-acre farm and study agribusiness, floriculture and veterinary science.
Teachers at all levels said they have more time for instruction because discipline is a virtual non-issue at the school.
Students rarely skip class, giving Sunny Hills an average daily attendance rate of 99.6%. (Those who miss a day can make it up at Saturday school.)
Last year, there were only three students found to have drugs on campus, and two caught with knives (one was fake). Hockersmith, the assistant principal, said she sees about one fight each month.
“I knew it was different when I came for my interview and saw all these roses,” French teacher Lynn Johnson said of the flourishing red, pink, white and yellow flowers that decorate the immaculate campus. “The school I was at before, the kids would not have allowed a rose to bloom--they would have stampeded anything living.”
The challenge teachers at Sunny Hills face is staying ahead of students who read books in advance and do homework on time, often turning in projects more elaborate than what was assigned.
“They look way beyond what’s due on Monday,” said Gwen Almeida, who teaches both honors and college prep English. “It’s not just, ‘What am I going to get on this assignment?’ They have a plan that’s beyond high school.”
Despite its increasing success, the past few years have been rough for Sunny Hills, with the rash of criminal incidents connected to the campus causing alarm. Long derided as “Snobby Hills” because of its affluent student body, the school has recently earned a second taunting nickname from cross-town rivals: “Scummy Thrills.”
At least two students have attempted suicide this fall, overdosing on pills, administrators said.
Some wonder whether the competitive atmosphere compounded other problems in leading to the string of arrests in recent years. But many students, staff and parents insist the problems are pure coincidence and unrelated to the school.
“There’s no connection between the school and these crazy incidents,” said George Giokaris, Sunny Hills principal from 1989 to 1993. “There would have been no way to have ever predicted that these kinds of things would happen.”
Still, senior Sommer Jensen said she is embarrassed to tell people where she goes to school because they think it’s “Murder Inc.”
“People in my class are just waiting for something bad to happen this year,” senior Grace Fujimoto said quietly. “Because in the Class of 1995, something bad has happened every year.”
Since the grisly headlines began in January, 1993, with the arrest of five students for the well-rehearsed slaying of a Foothill High honors student, there has been a complete administrative turnover at the school, bringing Loring Davies into the principal’s chair.
A balding, bearded man who looks older than his 34 years, Davies keeps his office door open and spends hours each day roaming the campus, walkie-talkie in hand.
“The students here have an incredible amount of self-confidence,” Davies said. “To take these students (who) are already bright and have excelled beyond their years and help them continue to grow can be very difficult. . . . Some people say, ‘Gosh, you’re putting too much pressure on students.’ I don’t know that you can have it both ways all the time.”
Massy Tadjedin is not exactly a typical Sunny Hills student--she’s more like the ideal.
Massy, president of the student body, is in class from 6:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day. She volunteers at the Red Cross, works at Laura Ashley on Sunday afternoons, and was on the homecoming court. She got 1450 on her SAT and applied early to Harvard.
Just shy of 18, Massy said she gets only a couple of hours of sleep a night (her mother said it’s more like four) and is addicted to caffeine--"coffee, Coke, chocolate, anything.” She doesn’t watch TV. She doesn’t have time.
“I never felt like I was in high school. I felt like I went straight from junior high to college,” Massy said as she lugged her loaded backpack, a thick biology text in hand for constant cramming.
“There was a time when I was questioning whether I was enjoying my youth,” she reflected. “That’s a huge fear I have. Am I going to look back on this and say I didn’t have any fun in high school?”
Decade of Change
The ethnicity of the Sunny Hills High School student body has undergone a massive shift during the past decade. Many Korean immigrants have moved to the affluent Fullerton neighborhood where the school is located, largely because its excellent academic reputation extends across the Pacific. A profile of Sunny Hills:
* Founded: 1959
* Enrollment: 1,950
* Dropout rate: 0%
* Attendance*: 99.6%
* Special programs: International Baccalaureate, Agriculture, Languages
* Class of 1994: 399 graduating seniors, 75% accepted to a four-year college
Scholastic Aptitude Test: The SATs were taken by 85% of class of 1994. A comparison of average scores:
Verbal Math Sunny Hills 456 564 California 413 482 Nationwide 423 479
1985 1994 Asian 17.9% 48.4% White 71.8% 39.4% Latino 6.7% 8.5% Other 3.6% 3.7%
* Average daily attendance for 1993-94
Source: Orange County Dept. of Education
Researched by JODI WILGOREN / Los Angeles Times