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Ethnic Shift at Hollywood High Is Test of Tolerance

April 20, 1985|STEPHEN BRAUN | Times Staff Writer

After teaching science at Hollywood High School for 25 years, Harry Hughes might be expected occasionally to dwell in the past.

When the feeling strikes, he hauls out an the same old yearbook--a red, dog-eared annual from Hollywood High's class of 1968--from a stack of chemistry and biology texts and passes it among his students.

Last week, Hughes fetched the book for yet another class. As it passed through rows of newly arrived immigrant students, handed off from Salvadorans to Armenians to Vietnamese to Nicaraguans, Hughes listened to their shocked gasps and waited for the familiar question.

Whites Once Dominated

Finally, it came: "Why," asked one baffled student, "were there so many white people?"

The faces of white, all-American teen-agers once dominated the pages of Hollywood High School's yearbooks. For decades, the affluent children of the Hollywood Hills used Hollywood High as their college preparatory school. They stocked the school's football teams and cheerleading squads with the most athletic and winsome among them, while teachers like Harry Hughes propelled them on the path to inevitable adult success.

But those days are long gone. As Hollywood High reels from successive waves of immigrants, first from Soviet Armenia, then Southeast Asia, and now Central America, the remaining American-born students, who now make up less than 20% of the school's 2,100-population, have become a dwindling, uneasy minority.

Most Find Rewards

Most American students have found that their contacts with Hollywood's immigrants have led to rewarding friendships and a deeper appreciation of cultural differences. But some acknowledge yearning for more of their own. And some Americans complain that their education is sometimes hampered by classes that are largely made up of English-poor immigrant students, a grievance often echoed by their teachers.

At least a third of the school's 100 teachers have been at Hollywood High long enough to remember when American-born students were in the majority. Many, like Harry Hughes, have adapted to Hollywood High's new world. Others have stubbornly continued teaching methods no longer suited to the school's ethnic mix. A few have simply given up and retired, still clinging to visions of the Hollywood High that existed when they were in their prime.

"The whole situation was just so overwhelming," said Harry Major, 53, a Shakespeare scholar who taught at Hollywood for 28 years before taking early retirement last year. "Students were checking in and out of my classes all the time. Hardly any of them understood what I was trying to teach. I never knew if I was getting in a new crop of kids . . . . I used to try to put a positive tone on it, but after a while, I realized I didn't know where to even begin with them."

Academic Excellence the Norm

When Major joined Hollywood High's faculty in 1956, he came to a teacher's paradise, a school so accustomed to academic excellence that teaching openings were hard to find.

"It was like moving to a small New England prep school," said Willard Hansen, who taught English between 1954 and 1962 and returned to Hollywood last year to become the school's principal. "None of the teachers ever left, because they had it so good."

Hollywood's scholastic reputation was no fluke. Students were required to write a flawless English composition to graduate. A solitary misspelled word or run-on sentence could mean the difference between passing or flunking.

"The goal was to program kids for college," said John Swinford, a 1967 Hollywood graduate who now heads the school's English department. "Not everyone went, but even if they went into a white-collar job, they had a good education behind them. Hollywood High was a steppingstone to life."

Few Anxieties Then

Whether they came from affluent families in the hills or middle-class homes in the Hollywood flats, the vast majority of Hollywood's students were white and monied enough to live without worrying about life's difficulties. Anxieties came only when their grades dipped or their social lives suffered.

The most golden among them were the "soshes," wealthy students from the hills who drove down to school each day in Mustangs and Chevrolet convertibles. They always looked good, wearing school fraternity and sorority jackets over their stylish madras shirts and long, A-line dresses. Most of the school's student leaders came from their ranks and they often appeared in dramatic productions attended by Hollywood talent scouts.

The school had other crowds, too--surfers who lived only for sunny weekends, leather-jacketed hoods who were the first to experiment with hallucinogenic drugs and, as might be expected in a school with a bookish bent, intellectuals who looked down on all of them.

'A Little Weird'

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