Peter Watts relishes the bonds he forged with coaches, teachers and classmates at Verbum Dei High School, an all-boys Catholic campus with a long tradition as an athletic powerhouse and a haven from strife in South Los Angeles.
Now a successful educator, Watts assumed his son, Avery, would carry on the tradition as a proud Eagle at "the Verb." He and his wife were stunned when the 13-year-old's application was rejected. The reason: The school is now dedicated to serving only poor students, and the Wattses' income is too high.
That policy is the source of growing contention among alumni, many of whom attribute their success to the school and feel they are being punished for their achievement. They argue that legacy admissions are common at private schools and alumni can be a lifeline for fundraising.
In 2000, Verbum Dei was cash-strapped and struggling with low enrollment. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony asked the Jesuits to take over, and linked Verbum Dei with the Cristo Rey Network of Catholic schools, which provides a college preparatory experience for disadvantaged urban teenagers. Students participate in a work-study program that finances part of their education, which school officials say averages about $13,000 per pupil. Annual tuition and fees are about $2,900; the difference is made up through grants and fundraising.
Spaces are reserved for low-income students rather than families such as the Wattses, who can afford to pay higher tuitions at other private schools.
Even alumni concede it is a worthy policy. But is it the right one for Verbum Dei? The debate has continued for more than a year since a new administration -- determined to focus on its core mission -- assumed control at the school.
"I can understand what they're trying to do . . . but I also see that they are not looking at the big picture," said Watts, who graduated from Verbum Dei in 1990 and is now principal at Thurgood Marshall Charter Middle School. "I was raised in this community and learned in this community and want to give something back."
D. Teddy McMillan, a 1987 graduate who is president of the alumni association, said school officials appear to be ignoring alumni.
"Even if we are middle-class, we're still a voice of the community," said McMillan, a technology specialist with the Inglewood Unified School District. Two of his brothers, four cousins and a nephew also graduated from the Watts school. "They are taking away a valuable asset. My son is 5 years old and I will tell you right now, he will be going to Verbum Dei."
Father William Muller, Verbum Dei's new president, said he is sympathetic to such sentiments. But alumni should accept and support the school's new mission, he said.
"I don't know of any school where alumni are involved that when things change, the alumni aren't upset," he said.
He added that Verbum Dei -- where some incoming freshmen barely have mastered sixth-grade reading and math skills -- might not be a good fit for middle-income students who had attended high-performing schools.
He is planning an independent evaluation of the Cristo Rey program in 2012 and said no changes to admission standards should be considered until then.
The Cristo Rey model was first launched in 1996 at a Chicago high school. Other schools began adopting it in 2001, and there are now 22 campuses nationwide. Two new schools, in San Francisco and Houston, are scheduled to open in the fall. The students' average family income is $35,000. Ninety-nine percent of graduates go on to college, according to Cristo Rey's vice president for advancement, Rob Cummings.
Verbum Dei was the first existing school to convert to the model, which has made for awkward adjustments, he conceded.
"It is always a challenge when a school joins the network after having had its own rich traditions and culture," Cummings said. But he added that Cristo Rey pumped cash into the struggling campus and that many alumni at the time welcomed the rescue.
"It's a high compliment to want to send their sons to the school," Cummings said. "But our students know that when they graduate and go on to a successful life and achieve their dreams, their children will not go to their school. That's part and parcel of the success of the mission."
The current dispute is frustrating for many observers who see room for compromise.
"The alumni network needs to go to Cristo Rey and explain to them that the situation at Verbum Dei is unique and that allowances need to be made," said Kurt Hocker, who graduated in 1984 and is president of the school's board of governors. "I have to believe there's a reasonable solution to this. All schools can't be the same for all people."
Another board member, Holly J. Mitchell, said alumni need to donate more time and money to the school. But she also said that a reasonable compromise might be for the school to set aside a percentage of legacy admissions.
The dispute, she noted, touches on sensitive issues of race and class, which are intertwined with the changing demographics of Watts, once solidly black and now majority Latino. The current enrollment of about 300 is split. For decades, both low- and middle-income black families were educated at Verbum Dei.
School administrators also may be slighting the role of high school athletics in providing opportunities for many young black men, said Mitchell, who is chief operating officer at Crystal Stairs, a local child-care agency. Several have gone on to successful careers in the NBA and NFL and potentially could be tapped for resources. Many alumni were chagrined recently when the school passed over a beloved former football coach for a job opening, and they have complained that trophies and other symbols of past accomplishments were stored away.
But school officials and the alumni association are looking to build better relations by planning a legacy day and more opportunities for mentoring students, McMillan said.
Meanwhile, Avery Watts is preparing to attend Junipero Serra High School in Gardena, a coed Catholic campus and rival of Verbum Dei. He admits to liking the fact that it enrolls girls, but he's disappointed that Verbum Dei turned him down.
"That threw me a curveball. I wasn't really expecting it," he said recently after football practice at Serra.
It has been harder for his father to reconcile.
"I never thought in my wildest dreams he'd go to Serra," Watts said. "It's bittersweet for me because I really wish he were going to Verbum Dei."