Each morning, an hourlong bus ride transports Maria Cortez from her home in a working-class neighborhood of North Hollywood to her second home on the lushly landscaped Brentwood campus of the Archer School for Girls, where she is a senior.
In North Hollywood, she lives in small apartment near busy Burbank Boulevard and shares one of two bedrooms with her 9-year-old brother. In Brentwood, she hangs out with the privileged daughters of celebrities and business moguls in a neighborhood of expansive lawns and expensive cars.
When she started at Archer in seventh grade, Maria was one of the first Latina students. Now 18, she sees a few more faces that resemble her own.
Despite their reputations as elitist enclaves of rich white kids, some independent schools, including Archer, are increasingly reaching out to girls like Maria as they attempt to transform their student bodies to reflect the world outside their doors.
Nationally, students of color made up 21% of all independent school students in 2005-06, up from 18% in 2000-01. At Archer, they make up 24% -- 120 of its 500 students. About 20% of students at the school -- where tuition tops $25,500 this year -- receive financial aid.
But widespread change at independent schools remains elusive. Many schools talk about diversity but their financial commitment to it varies.
Because they are private institutions, they are under no government pressure to integrate, said Stephan Reeves, president of Montage Diversity Consultants, a Pennsylvania firm created by private school graduates of color who are helping independent schools reach their diversity goals.
"Independent schools are set up with trustee boards that wield decision-making and financial power and make it difficult to effect institutional change very quickly," said Reeves. "I think many schools want to make these decisions, but it's a slow process. When they start allocating real funds and not just a few hundred dollars to go to a recruiting fair, then we'll see some real changes."
Most private schools recruit minority students through word of mouth; outside consultants; national nonprofits, including A Better Chance and the I Have a Dream Foundation; and the National Assn. of Independent Schools, whose diversity team sponsors conferences and workshops.
"It's important, if we're going to provide education and balance to students' lives, that we give them a racially diverse experience on campus that reflects the world they're going to live in," said Roger Weaver, headmaster at Crossroads School in Santa Monica.
But many schools' representatives say they find it hard to overcome stereotypes or geographic isolation to attract minorities. At St. Matthew's Parish School, an Episcopal day school of 325 students in Pacific Palisades, the share of minority students rose to 18% from 10% a few years ago, but not without a host of challenges, acknowledged head of school Les Frost.
"In many respects, we're a neighborhood school, which is a very nice thing to be, but when it comes to ethnic and racial diversity, it's a huge challenge," noted Frost.
'A second home'
When the Archer School opened 10 years ago, it was especially hard to recruit Latinas, whose families frequently choose public schools or lower-cost church-affiliated schools. Maria transferred from a small North Hollywood Christian school with 75 students.
Administrators are acutely aware of the girls' broad spectrum of backgrounds. The school requires most students to take Archer school buses that travel to and from the Sunset Boulevard campus, in part so that girls aren't confronted with "the new BMW someone got for their 16th birthday," said Arlene Hogan, head of school.
Still, some of Maria's first experiences were painful. The seventh grade girls who whipped out $100 bills as readily as sticks of gum made her angry.
Now some of those same girls are her best friends. She sleeps over at their mansions and they reciprocate in the apartment she shares with her mother, father and younger brother.
"This feels like a second home to me now," she said, sitting in the school's garden courtyard on a recent chilly morning.
Maria is waiting to hear whether she's been accepted at UCLA, Loyola Marymount, UC Berkeley and several other colleges.
"It hasn't been easy," she said. "I struggled a lot. But it feels good to be here and feel safe."
The school recently received a $5-million anonymous pledge for financial aid, which it has committed to match and plans to use to increase opportunities for girls from diverse backgrounds, Hogan said.
'Learn to mingle'
The Cate School, a college prep boarding school in Carpinteria with tuition at more than $36,000, provides financial aid to low-income families but also to those who make as much as $200,000 for whom boarding school would otherwise be a stretch.
The student body of 265 went from 23% students of color in 2000 to 41% today. With a $2-million annual financial aid budget, 30% of Cate students receive full scholarships. Twenty-eight percent are international students. At Cate, diversity means not only racial minorities but also gay and lesbian students and staff and those of different religions and socioeconomic classes, said head of school Benjamin D. Williams IV.
Cate sophomore Edderic Ugaddan, 15, a Filipino American from New Jersey, said that seeing other Asians on campus was a deciding factor in choosing the school.
"At least I'll have some good friends, I thought," said Edderic, at a luncheon on a lawn of the bluff-top campus during a recent parent weekend.
Diversity was equally important for his father, Edgardo Ugaddan, an electrical engineer who worked in Saudi Arabia for years before moving to the U.S.
"One of the most important things for Edderic is that he'll learn to mingle with all types of people from different cultures, customs and histories," said Ugaddan.
Still, private school administrators struggle to provide a supportive environment and to integrate different cultures.
The Independent School Alliance for Minority Affairs is a local group founded in 1984 that helps to place promising minority students at top-tier private schools. At a recent ceremony to honor seniors, parents and students spoke about the advantages of private schooling but also the culture shock.
One Asian father spoke of his discomfort in social settings when he seemed to be the "invisible man" to whom no one would speak unless he asked a question.
Alliance executive director Manasa Tangalin told the group about a call she received years ago from a parent who recounted how a classroom discussion about the welfare system in Rome led to the teacher's approaching the only black child, saying, "You must know something about that."
"One thing I encourage parents to do is know who to go to on campus if something is uncomfortable," Tangalin said.
Increasing faculty diversity is also a challenge for private schools. At Crossroads School, about 25% of faculty is nonwhite, said director of advancement Gennifer Yoshimaru. But it has been easier to attract students of color than teachers to the school, which is in a drive to boost student diversity at the 1,139-student school, now about 33%, to 40% by 2010.
"Many teachers of color want to return to their community to make a difference," said Yoshimaru. "But many of the schools in their communities are highly segregated, and I try to make the case that they're in a greater position to make an impact on racial harmony in a school that is struggling with a lot of diversity."
Archer School is one of the few where faculty diversity outpaces that of students; 32% of teachers are minorities.
Through the early rough patches at Archer, Maria was sustained by the encouragement of her parents, especially her mother, Ines Cortez.
Ines Cortez was one of nine children raised by a single mother in a small village of fewer than 1,000 people. She left school in sixth grade after her mother said she could afford to keep only her brother in school.
"I didn't blame my mother because I knew she had no choice," said Ines Cortez. "But that's why, as a mother now, education is so important to me."
When she was 17 and war broke out in El Salvador, Ines Cortez's mother agreed to send her to the U.S., a perilous monthlong journey guided by smugglers. She lived with an aunt who was housekeeper for a wealthy family and soon became a housekeeper herself. She learned about the Independent School Alliance for Minority Affairs through her employer, who also helped her to fill out the paperwork that led Maria to Archer.
On the same day Maria was accepted at Archer, the family -- father Jose Cortez is a waiter -- received loan approval for a house they had been saving to buy. Even though financial aid would pay for most of Maria's tuition, they knew that private school would entail numerous other fees and expenses. They let the house go.
Now, the Cortez's 9 year-old son, Mauricio, is a fourth-grader at the private Oakwood School in North Hollywood. Some of Cortez's friends have questioned why the family has sacrificed to put two children through private schools. But given rigorous academics, small classes, more individual attention than in public schools and vastly broadened horizons, both Ines and Maria agree they would not exchange the experience.
"Sometimes I feel it's me," said Ines Cortez, who became a naturalized citizen 10 years ago. "I tell Maria, the day you graduate from high school, I graduate from high school, the day you graduate from college, I graduate. That diploma is also my diploma."
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Private school diversity
Some independents schools in Southern
California are making inroads in increasing diversity. Here are
numbers for some L.A.-area schools.
*--* Total Students School enrollment of color Percent Archer School for Girls, Brentwood 500 120 24% Brentwood School, Brentwood 988 262 27% Buckley School, Sherman Oaks 750 223 30% Campbell Hall, North Hollywood 1,087 304 28% Cate School, Carpinteria 265 108 41% Crossroads School, Santa Monica 1,139 376 33% Harvard-Westlake School, Los Angeles 1,600 560 35% Marlborough School, Hancock Park 530 194 37% Westridge School, Pasadena 510 212 42% Windward School, Mar Vista 475 100 21%
Sources: The schools