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A place where ‘fail’ is the four-letter word

Miles Corwin is the author of "And Still We Rise: The Trials and Triumphs of Twelve Gifted Inner City Students," winner of the Pen USA West Award for nonfiction.

The portrayal of minority high school students in books, movies and television usually follows the same tired template: They are invariably gangbanging, drug-dealing, menacing ruffians who need the strong hand of a saintly teacher to spark their interest in learning. In “School of Dreams,” Edward Humes too writes about the tribulations of minority students and their relationships with their teachers. But the students Humes focuses on are not black or Latino; they are not from impoverished homes; they do not attend a crime-ridden inner-city high school. Humes’ fascinating book chronicles an entirely different group of students, with a different set of challenges. Most of the teenagers he focuses on are overachieving, middle-class Asian kids with ambitious, driven immigrant parents. They attend the No. 1-ranked public high school in California, a school that offers, Humes writes, “a prep-school education with no tuition.”

Gretchen Whitney High School in Cerritos is truly a “School of Dreams.” This is a school where discipline problems are rare and test scores astronomical. Its students must pass an entrance exam and must then maintain at least a C-plus average. The teachers, skilled and dedicated, foster a love of learning, and the school offers an array of high-powered, challenging courses, including Advanced Placement classes in 35 subjects.

The students are programmed for success because many of the parents have moved from across the world so their children can attend Whitney. Humes writes: “Thousands of Korean and Chinese immigrants have chosen Cerritos over other communities in the United States because of Whitney’s reputation. Several real estate agencies in town have focused their businesses -- and made their fortunes -- courting future immigrants by placing advertisements in South Korean newspapers listing homes for sale in Cerritos. Whitney and its achievements are always prominently mentioned in the ads, the lure of the number one public school making an otherwise ordinary, landlocked slice of suburbia irresistible to foreign house hunters.”

Because the parents have sacrificed so much, their children are under tremendous pressure to pass the highly competitive entrance exam, which they take in the sixth grade. The desperation to gain admittance to the school -- which spans seventh to 12th grade -- has resulted in numerous professional after-school tutoring academies sprouting up in the neighborhood, Humes writes, “at first catering to sixth-grade students, then fifth, and finally rolling back to first grade and even kindergarten.” Once students earn a coveted spot, however, they have no time to savor their success. They immediately embark on a high-pressure six-year journey whose only acceptable destination is admittance to a prestigious university, preferably “HYP” -- the school’s shorthand for “Harvard, Yale or Princeton.”

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To reach this promised land, many students arise before 6 and study until 2 or 3 the next morning, needing frequent infusions of Starbucks triple grande lattes to stay awake. Few of the teenagers at Whitney, Humes contends, take drugs or engage in premarital sex. In fact, he writes, there is peer pressure to avoid sex, drugs and alcohol. These students are uniformly disciplined, goal-oriented, respectful of their parents and obsessively motivated. Compared with the stereotypical American teenager -- a promiscuous, boozing, drug-addled slacker who slides through high school with the minimum of effort -- the resolute teenagers Humes depicts are a welcome alternative. And the result of their onerous schedules is impressive. Their average SAT score in 2001 was 1,343 -- more than 300 points above the national average and the second highest in the country among public high schools. (New York City’s Stuyvesant High School is No. 1.) They ace the AP exams, and the overwhelming majority gain acceptance to HYP, a University of California campus or other prestigious private colleges.

The critical mass of so many motivated students prevents the kind of peer pressure to fail that is endemic at many high schools, where academic negligence is considered cool. Whitney is a safe haven where students can strive for success without fear that they will be hazed for being nerds or grinds. Still, one wonders after reading “School of Dreams” whether these students have sacrificed their childhood for academic success. Humes describes the rigorous schedule of one girl whose parents moved to Cerritos so their child could attend Whitney: “When she turned eight ... they packed her off to after-school academies....There were the twelve years of piano lessons, the ten years of violin ... the eight years of Chinese school.... She has studied with obsessive determination, four hours of homework most nights (even weekends), summers spent watching her friends head off to tan at the beach while she hunkered down under the fluorescent glare of SAT cram classes.... Summer vacation has always been an oxymoron ... filled morning to night with programmed learning, reading lists, math and science camp.... “

Humes reports that students descend into depression -- not for failing a class (which is unthinkable) but for earning a B instead of an A. Several Whitney students confided to a teacher that they were beaten by their parents for failing tests. Another student suffered a nervous breakdown. Whitney graduates who endured the rigors of the school under the thumb of demanding, overprotective parents discovered that they were psychologically and socially unprepared for college. Many had difficulty adjusting and making choices, overwhelmed by their newfound freedom. One former student who grew increasingly depressed during his four years at Harvard committed suicide.

Humes does a fine job of portraying the pressures that Asian students face, their drive for success and their attempts to appease and satisfy their parents. He worked at the school as a volunteer writing coach, and his well-written cameos of the students are enhanced by their own autobiographical essays. His approach is nonjudgmental; he allows his readers to make up their own minds about the students’ single-minded quest for academic excellence. Readers, however, would have benefited if he had presented fuller portraits of the parents, including their perspectives, their hopes, their sacrifices and their reasons for the pressures they put on their children.

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Whitney is a public school that works -- an institution of excellence despite receiving less money per pupil than any other school in its district. But the school’s top ranking in California -- based on the scores of statewide tests -- has engendered resentment from teachers at other schools in the district, who consider Whitney elitist, the source of a massive brain drain, a place where blacks and Latinos are dramatically underrepresented. Whitney’s ethnic breakdown is about 70% Asian, 9% Filipino, 6% Latino and 2% black, compared with the school district totals of 32% Asian, 9% Filipino, 37% Latino and 10% black. (At Whitney and in the school district, 12% to 13% of the students are white.) While Whitney does siphon off the best students in the district, some of its supporters contend that the admissions process is a meritocracy whose applicants are admitted solely on the basis of test scores, without regard to race or parental influence. But that argument seems specious, considering the costly private tutoring and test preparation courses that only a fraction of students in the school district can afford.

It is difficult to imagine how a public high school that selects its students on the basis of a sixth-grade admittance exam and has a student body of predominantly bright, middle-class Asian kids (half of whom test gifted), and whose parents are involved, well educated and demanding, could not be a success. And while the school struggles for funds from the district, a parent-run foundation raises a considerable amount of money for computers and science-department equipment and even sends a teacher delegation to the East Coast to meet with admissions officers from Ivy League and other private universities, establish contacts and promote students in person. Still, its advantages aside, Whitney can serve as a model for administrators and teachers at the typical overcrowded, underfunded, problem-plagued American high school; there are valuable lessons to be learned here.

But there are also admonitions that should be heeded by dutiful children who abandon their dreams to please their parents, and by parents obsessed with high school grade-point averages, who do not realize that their children’s pursuit of the American dream is not a sprint but a marathon.


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