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School Casts New Light on Learning : Education: Some students find that with fewer social pressures they can focus more on their studies at Washington state's only evening high school, the model for a similar Glendale project.

October 30, 1994|VIVIEN LOU CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LACEY, Wash. — Dusk falls slowly near the southern tip of Puget Sound. But the 230 students of New Century High seem hardly to notice as they sit through lessons well into the night.

At the only evening high school in Washington state, classes begin at 2:30 p.m. and end at 8:40 p.m. And students like it that way--from the aspiring obstetrician who wakes before dawn to go to work to the longhaired Led Zeppelin fan who sleeps until afternoon.

What binds them is a need for a small learning environment that enables them to know all their teachers and schoolmates, and a strong dislike of the social pressures that pervade traditional high schools.

"Kids just seem to blossom there," said Paula Gilpin, whose daughter is a sophomore. "It's mainly for the middle-of-the-road kids who are not failures and not hotshots. It's mainly for the middle-of-the-road kids who suddenly come into their own. There's not all the pressure from cheerleaders, football players, hoodlums and all."

Respected within educational circles for its success in motivating students, New Century is the model the Glendale Unified School District has selected as it develops its own evening high school.

Glendale trustees voted in July to become the first California public school system to provide comprehensive classes next fall for regular high school students in the late afternoon and evening.

Keeping campuses open longer is one way for financially strapped districts like Glendale's to ease overcrowding and curb dropout rates, while saving money and avoiding unpopular year-round class schedules.

Many in Washington state--including parents, teachers and the state superintendent of public instruction--say certain teen-agers benefit tremendously from nighttime instruction, staying in school when they might otherwise drop out.

But after five years, support for New Century is far from universal. Teachers and administrators at other campuses believe that the institution drains resources away from their schools. Friction abounds between the staffs--and students--of the two schools that share, day and night, the same specially designed campus. Critics claim New Century has become elitist.

The difficulties have been exacerbated by tight finances. A proposed tax increase for teachers' salaries, classroom supplies and extracurricular activities failed in February and April, triggering more than 100 layoffs in the district. If voters reject the tax increase again early next year, closure of one of the daytime high schools, and possibly New Century, will follow, officials said.

But few in this bedroom community of 24,280 near the state capital of Olympia deny that evening high schools in general are a good idea.

Most New Century students say they adjust well by doing homework before or after school, and spending more time with friends and family on the weekend. One in four finishes work before school begins.

Student body President Valerie Reid said she was once an out-of-control hoodlum who first smoked pot at the age of 7 and enjoyed beating up strangers as a gang member.

The 17-year-old California native enrolled at New Century after her father walked into the wrong school office. He came out sold on the idea of an evening high school.

"It was logical," Reid says now. "I learned more at night because it was my prime time. . . . It was not like I hated school. At the time, it was like I had bigger and better things I could be doing."

Fellow senior Aurora Laing dreams of becoming an obstetrician and wakes before dawn each day to work as a courtesy clerk at Safeway for up to five hours. Then, she returns home to do homework before going to classes.

Bubbly and serious at once, Laing is neither the homecoming queen type nor the class nerd, the kind of girl who admits she rarely got noticed by peers. "I have nothing against anybody, but I guess I never fit in," she said.

Only after she broke down in tears did Laing persuade her father, John, that she might blend in at New Century.

"Originally I thought of it as a dropout school, as an alternative high school," he said. "I thought it was for kids with names like Bubba or Killer, street-type slang names. . . . But it's for kids who don't want to be bothered with all the socializing."

Surrounded by miles of evergreens, the 40-acre campus opened last year. It was specially built to accommodate two different high schools in much the same space. There are two sets of administrative offices.

The schools are a study in contrasts. Only in passing do students from either school acknowledge one another, and derisive remarks are often traded. In the 39 minutes it takes for the daytime students to leave the grounds before New Century opens, it is clear that the gulf between them is wide.

"They keep to themselves and we keep to ourselves, and if they have anything to say to us, we ignore 'em," said Todd Porter, a New Century senior and self-described cowboy fond of wearing Stetsons.

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