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Campus Takes a New Tack

Times Staff Writer

At first, Dedra Waggener couldn’t imagine sending her only child away to learn. She believed boarding schools were for kids who were rich or bad. “My son,” she said firmly, “is neither.”

Waggener’s opinion of boarding schools changed when she visited the Thacher School, a 350-acre campus in the Los Padres National Forest near Ojai. Here, every freshman receives a horse, and students learn Chinese and political philosophy in classes of no more than 11.

School directors offered a full scholarship to her son, Christopher Thomas, 13, who grew up in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles. Waggener accepted the deal: Thomas would receive a top education -- which typically costs $32,750 annually -- free, and Thacher would add a smart, determined minority student from a low-income family to its increasingly diverse enrollment.

Recruiters from independent schools across the country have long grappled with how to diversify their campuses. School directors increasingly are turning to Boys and Girls Clubs, rural neighborhoods and inner-city campuses looking for students such as Thomas, who are hardworking and principled.

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Ethnic diversity on these campuses has risen 4% in the last decade, largely because of increased financial aid and international recruitment. Another factor has been a rise in the number of minority families willing to pay full tuition to flee troubled public campuses, school operators say.

Thacher’s financial aid pool received a boost recently with a $10-million donation from the estate of an alumnus. Intended to increase diversity on campus, it was the largest gift ever awarded to the school.

Students nationwide received more than $694 million in financial aid to attend nearly 900 independent schools last year. The percentage of students receiving financial aid at boarding schools has tripled in the last 20 years, according to the Assn. of Boarding Schools.

Some public school advocates say that while the push to integrate private schools is laudable, it is based on the “automatic assumption that private is better than public,” said Michael Pons of the National Education Assn. Some of these campuses, he added, patronizingly view scholarships as a good opportunity “for these poor unfortunates.”

Peter Bachmann, board president of the California Assn. of Independent Schools, said that although these schools strive to attract hardworking students, they do not want to be “bastions of privilege.”

“We still fight against the elitist label that our schools are slapped with,” said Harold Eugene Batiste III, a vice president of the National Assn. of Independent Schools, “and we hate that.”

Thacher, which has 220 students and accepts 65 applicants each year, has made steady progress toward diversifying. Minority students, 8% of whom are international students, now make up 29% of the school’s enrollment, up from about 22% five years ago.

Next year, 33% of students will be eligible to receive financial aid -- in large part because of the donation made by alum Owen Jameson.

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Jameson graduated from Thacher in 1930, following his two brothers. He went on to earn a degree from Harvard Law School in 1937 and later became a lawyer in San Francisco.

Decades later, three young family members attended Thacher and told Jameson stories about the changing campus. Delighted by the growing diversity, Jameson decided to help Thacher further its efforts.

Four Thacher recruiters are traveling across the country, searching charter, public and private schools for students who would benefit from this financial aid.

They are looking for students like Christopher Thomas. Last summer, he graduated from one of the lowest-ranking campuses academically in the state, the 2,700-student Audubon Middle School in South Los Angeles.

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Now, Christopher spends his days studying Shakespeare and physics. In the afternoon, he shovels manure and brushes the soft mane of his horse, Queen.

He calls home regularly. Once, he translated phrases into Chinese for his mother. “I could tell he was smiling through the phone,” she said. “He was so excited about it.”

On a recent day, heavy rain fell on the avocado orchards, purple sage and black oaks surrounding the school. Christopher stood in a stall that smelled like hay and manure and said: “I miss the city, I miss the loudness sometimes. I miss my friends. But to achieve greatness, you have got to make sacrifices, you know?”

He went on, explaining how the mood changes on the road from Los Angeles to Ojai. It starts with the orange trees, the air, the quiet.

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A series of bumpy, winding roads lined with pumpkin patches and saddle shops leads to the 115-year-old school surrounded by mountains. The campus looks like a small neighborhood, with paved roads and swing sets on the lawns of staff members who live in cottages. Bears and bobcats sometimes wander by.

Sherman Day Thacher created the school to give students a strong education in a rugged environment. Candidates must take a standard school admissions test, but acceptance is not based solely on test scores. Applicants must be hardworking and have a “good moral compass.”

Once admitted to Thacher, students live under strict rules, said Michael Mulligan, the head of school. He does not tolerate drugs, alcohol or abuse.

Teachers live among students, supervising and helping with homework. The school does not allow boys and girls to visit each other’s dorms. Students cannot have cars on campus, and they cannot leave on their own except for holidays and summer vacation.

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Students talk about the “Thacher bubble,” shielding them from the world of drugs, gangs, alcohol and bullying.

After Eric Butts, 21, graduated from Thacher in 2001, he was shocked to see the alcohol use on his college campus, Claremont McKenna College, where he is now studying economics and accounting. That never happened at Thacher where, Butts said, he learned to avoid negative influences.

Raised by a single mother in Chicago, Butts received a scholarship to Thacher through a program linking low-income students to boarding schools. He remembers fondly his days at Thacher, where he said he taught his classmates a thing or two about life.

When reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Butts said, he explained to classmates that he found some language in the book racially offensive. Other times, he talked about poverty -- from firsthand knowledge. His mother worked with a preschool, and sometimes the only food his family ate was left over from her school.

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“It made [students] think twice before complaining about the food in the dining hall,” Butts said. Life at Thacher is busy. Classes are followed by two hours of horseback riding, sports, volunteer work or other extracurricular activities. The day ends with study hall. Four nights a week, students and staff gather in the dining hall for a formal dinner.

With more low-income students attending, the school is delicately handling activities requiring money.

Not everyone can afford to order pizzas or go to movies in town, said Mulligan. About 18% of students come from poor families that cannot spare money for extras, he said. Thacher gives those students bank accounts and monthly stipends of about $30, as well as extra money if they need medicine or supplies.

When their families visit, Mulligan opens his home because most cannot afford hotels.

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Thacher also holds an “un-prom.” It assigns each student a date and sets a $25 spending limit on outfits. They buy vintage dresses and costumes at local thrift stores.

This year, the school gave Victoria Lowe, 14, calling cards to keep in touch with her mother, a post office worker in the Bronx. The school will also pay for her plane ticket home for Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks.

Victoria’s older brother graduated from Thacher in 1999 and is now attending college. Like him, Victoria received a scholarship to attend the school. “I’m following my brother,” she said. “It has been so good for him. He’s so super smart.”

When she told her friends that she was going to boarding school in California, she remembered them asking: “What’s wrong? Why are you being shipped away?”

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The first week at Thacher, Victoria was shocked at how different she was from everyone else. “I kind of felt like I wasn’t fitting in,” she said, “like nobody would understand me.”

She had never ridden a horse. She fell off four times in the first few weeks. Once, her horse bucked her over a rail. She still has the bruises and scars.

Teachers took students camping, another new experience for Victoria. While she and two other girls were playing cards, the conversation turned to home. All three began crying. They formed an instant bond.

The school assigned her a different horse. Wearing a helmet, Victoria began riding again. On a recent afternoon, she sat straight and tall on her horse as it trotted on a rocky trail.

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Later, Victoria said she felt more comfortable at Thacher, but she still missed home. “Sometimes,” she said, “you have to leave some place that is not benefiting you and go somewhere else.”


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