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Two families choose different paths to academic excellence

Summers for eighth-grader Jade Larriva-Latt are filled with soccer and backpacking, art galleries and museums, library volunteer work and sleep-away camp. There is no summer school, no tutoring.

"They need their childhood," says Jade's father, Cesar Larriva, an associate professor of education at Cal Poly Pomona. "It's a huge concern of mine, the lack of balance from pushing them too hard."

For 10th-grader Derek Lee, summer is the time to sprint ahead in the ferocious race to the academic top. He polishes off geometry, algebra and calculus ahead of schedule and masters SAT content (he earned a perfect 800 on the math portion last fall). This year, he plans to take college-level courses, maybe at UCLA or Stanford.

"You give your kids pressure so they can learn to handle it," says Derek's mother, Meiling Lee, smacking her fist into her hand. "Because finally they have to go out into the real world, and the real world is tough."

Jade and Derek both live in San Marino, a graceful town of boutique businesses, tree-lined streets and a well-heeled populace. Three-fourths of the 13,000 residents, who are primarily Asian and white, boast college or graduate degrees; the median household income of $160,000 is three times the national average.

It is also home to California's highest-performing unified school district, drawing the Lees from Monterey Park in 1986 and the Larriva-Latts from South Pasadena three years ago. Immersed in an educational climate of high expectations — the district last year scored 951 out of 1,000 on the state's Academic Performance Index, based on students' standardized test scores — both Derek and Jade have excelled.

But the two families — one Chinese, one Mexican/Jewish — have made strikingly different decisions about how to pursue academic excellence. One relies on a parent-driven focus on tutoring, advanced classes and testing drills, while the other allows broader choices and a more relaxed approach. Which style produces superior results — and whether culture affects choices — are questions that have become part of a national debate, thanks to the book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Yale law professor Amy Chua.

In her best-selling memoir about raising two daughters, Chua advocates an authoritarian style that pushes kids through discipline, diligence and relentless drilling with little time for fun — no sleepovers, play dates or sports. Chua labels it Chinese parenting, though she acknowledges that other races and ethnicities employ the same approach. She argues that Western parenting does not push children hard enough and is overly concerned with their self-esteem.

The Lees and Larriva-Latts reflect the opposing philosophies. But despite the different paths, their children are succeeding.

Derek's approach is captured on a single Excel spreadsheet listing his schedule from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week. More than 24 hours a week are penciled in for tutoring — Advanced Placement chemistry, AP calculus, AP English — plus Chinese-language school and violin. On Saturdays, he starts at 8:30 a.m. with four hours of Chinese school, followed by nearly six hours of math tutoring, finishing at 11 p.m. With AP exams looming this month, he has added even more study hours.

His mother, Meiling, who created the schedule, is a vivacious, irrepressible immigrant from Taiwan. Developed over 25 years with four sons, her system is not easy or cheap, she warns. Her architect husband makes a comfortable living, but Lee says she forgoes fancy jewelry to afford the $3,000 monthly tutoring costs per child she has sometimes spent.

The program requires strict training, firm rules, constant monitoring, unapologetic scolding and, most of all, a plan that begins in kindergarten.

That's when Lee started her sons on outside math classes with 10 pages of daily drills and frequent visits to bookstores. She made them take violin lessons. But she really kicked into gear when the boys entered middle school, the precursor to the all-important high school years when grades and test scores count for college admission. Between grades eight and 10, she says, having fun is dangerously distracting.

"You have to build the study habit," she explains, likening children to Jell-O that must be molded before hardening.

By eighth grade, Derek was taking a college-level biology course at a tutoring center. His entire high school course load, outside AP classes, SAT test schedule and tutoring to propel him to perfect scores were mapped out.

His mother monitored him via the family's surveillance cameras and even made him study during their one-week Newport Beach summer vacation.

At first he hated the regimen, longing for more free time to shoot Nerf guns and play video games. Two-thirds of the way through, he blew up at his mother. "You're so tired," he said. "You're so angry."

But Meiling, who spoke little English when she immigrated to the United States in 1979, said she was only thinking of his future. "A good college is a passport to another world," she told him. "It will decide your fate."

Today, Derek, a lanky sophomore, powers through, generally without complaint.

He understands that he'll lose his phone for bad grades — including Bs, which he says are known as "Asian Fail." He accepts that a few months before an AP exam, he will be cut off from video games, leisure reading — almost anything besides school and eight hours of studying a day.

But Derek also knows that when he hits those A's and perfect test scores, he'll feel great about himself and get rewards: an iPhone 4, Ultimate Ears headphones, a computer with four gigs of RAM to play with during his downtime: a few hours immediately after school or on Sunday afternoons.

He knows the system works. Eldest brother George, 30, went to MIT, is pursuing a graduate degree in computer science at Caltech and has started his own software business. Ted, 24, graduated from Johns Hopkins University and earned a master's degree in biomedical engineering at USC. Randy, 17, a San Marino senior, is armed for college with a 4.0-plus grade-point average and eight AP courses — six of which he aced with the highest exam score of five.

"The way to be superior is to go to a better college," says Derek, 16. "The way to get to a better college is to get good grades. And the way to get good grades is to go to a tutor.... If you work hard, you can improve on anything."

In any case, he knows he has no choice. "My mom influences everything," he says. "All of my brothers did it. If you don't do it, you stand out and you're a failure."

Meiling says people may criticize Chinese moms but points out it was Americans who built the system requiring stratospheric grades and test scores, academic honors and unique achievements to enter elite schools.

Waving her chart of GPA, SAT and AP goals, she exclaims: "We just try to meet these goals, and then they call us 'Tiger Moms'!"

A few miles away, Cesar Larriva and his wife, Jenna Latt, a chemical engineer, have told their girls, Jade and Alejandra, that they expect them to attend a college or university. They expect them to work hard and do their best. But they don't push extra tutoring on them — the parents help them at home — and they don't reward A's or punish Bs.

"If they do well, that's a reward in itself," Larriva says. "And if they don't do well, I tell them to focus on the learning. The grades will come. We want them to be interested in the disciplines."

"Learning for the joy of learning," Latt adds.

The Larriva-Latts try to make book-learning meaningful and relevant for their girls. Jade and Alejandra visit museums, art galleries and the public library regularly. They read two daily newspapers — science is Jade's favorite topic; sports, Alejandra's. They listen to public radio. They watch and discuss documentaries about healthcare and food safety and learn about scientists and other achievers to fire their own dreams and ambitions.

They also play sports and musical instruments, enjoy sleepovers and perform in school plays.

"We want them to be independent, self-sustaining, happy adults," Latt says.

"They have to develop a passion for something and push themselves," Larriva says. "If they don't get into Stanford, they'll get into another good university."

Not that the parents let them slide. Latt restricted Alejandra's iTouch usage this year when she noticed her daughter wasn't reading enough.

But the couple allow the girls to make many of their own choices. Summer school for Alejandra? "No way," the 12-year-old says. "I'm doing baseball."

Jade, 13, is more ambivalent. She says she has no interest in outside tutoring and being pushed like her friends. She expects to do well — not for her parents, she says, but for herself. On her own, she often studies four hours a night and earns all A's, except for Bs in honors math.

But, surrounded by so many hard-charging students determined to get ahead, it is hard for her not to feel the pressure. Jade admits she was nervous last year when many of her friends — most of them Asian — attended summer school, had tutors and read textbooks early.

Now, with summer approaching, she is worrying again.

Her father tells her to relax. Play tennis.

Jade says she'll probably go to summer school.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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