SALINAS — Alisal High School counselor Pamela Bernhard recalls the day she met the new teacher: George Shirley seemed oddly out of place "in his little lawyer's suit, with his little briefcase. He looked like he landed on the wrong planet." Shirley, sensing her curiosity, had explained, "I'm looking for a less stressful job."
That was in the spring of 1984. During the next two years, the balding, middle-aged newcomer would become the center of a storm that swept through the school, toppling some long-held notions about the academic potential of the Latino students whose parents labor in the strawberry and lettuce fields of Salinas.
Supporters and detractors alike acknowledge that without George Shirley and his nudging, cajoling and just plain hard sell, Alisal High's 1986 graduating class of 225 would not have had an unprecedented 84 students accepted at four-year colleges and universities this fall, nine in the Ivy League. Some had four or five offers from prestigious schools.
Juan Pantoja, who's at Princeton, calls it a "revolution" at Alisal High, a school he and other critics--students and faculty--contend has in the past been distinguished only by academic mediocrity and the degree to which it is segregated--85% minority, most of those Latino.
In September, 72 of those 84 students headed for college campuses, some carrying their belongings in cardboard boxes. A few had cold feet at the last minute; others had succumbed to pressures to get a job and help support the family.
Prestigious List of Schools
The schools include Harvard, Stanford, Notre Dame, Williams, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Cornell, Columbia, Georgetown, the University of Chicago, Boston University and the University of California. In addition, 65 went on to community colleges.
Statewide, the high school dropout rate for Latino students is about one-third and, at Alisal, it is more than 50%. According to 1985 data of the California Postsecondary Education Commission, only a fraction of the 53.7% of high school graduates eligible for UC, the state university system and two-year schools and independents in-state were Latinos.
But Shirley, 46, the man who started it all, is no longer at Alisal. For reasons administrators discuss only in vague generalities, he was not rehired.
There are ugly asides voiced about racism in Salinas, where Latinos, many of them migrant farm workers, have replaced the Okies who in the '30s settled in Alisal, now East Salinas. The Establishment, supporters of Shirley allege, was enraged that some of its youngsters, products of Salinas High (John Steinbeck's school) and North Salinas High, both predominantly Anglo, were turned down by some of the "name" colleges.
"It's a fact that there's resentment there," said Alisal Principal Gary Horsley. "I'm constantly holding my tongue."
Shirley, choking up, said, "I keep thinking of what could have been, " if he had had just one more year. The Class of 1986 was not "some intellectual elite that happens every four years," he insisted, "not a group of intellectual Mexican geniuses" but just like the hundreds of bright kids for whom Alisal has been only a conduit to a job in the fields or a fast-food restaurant.
He rages at a system that, as he sees it, is writing off youngsters for whom English is, basically, a foreign language and for whom economic survival has had to come before intellectual enrichment. "We're creating a nation of service people," Shirley fumed. "I want us to turn out doctors and lawyers, not busboys."
In a state with a burgeoning Latino population in its public schools (in Monterey County, home of Alisal High, almost 40%; in Los Angeles County, 44%), the saga of Alisal and of George Shirley and his kids--Juan and Corinne and Elida and the others--is more than an isolated curiosity.
Both George Shirley's admirers and his detractors acknowledge his commitment to helping society's less privileged. He himself overcame the poverty of a rural Tennessee farm to earn a law degree at the University of Denver and, almost inevitably, he gravitated to pro bono work. "I try to live my values," he said.
He has campaigned for George McGovern; fought for the oil rights of reservation Indians, among whom he lived; lobbied in Washington and in Sacramento for civil rights and environmental groups; taught school in Denver and in Sacramento; instigated reform in migrant camps in Florida. By the early '70s, he was in Salinas as directing attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), working on civil rights and poverty issues. Similar missions then took him to rural areas of Minnesota and Florida.