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School Stands Out for Better, for Worse : Education: Fullerton's Sunny Hills High is full of achievers, but a few of its grads have made grisly headlines.

November 27, 1994|JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FULLERTON — Sunny Hills High is a public school with a zero percent dropout rate and no graffiti on the walls, a place where students brag about pulling all-nighters and compete in honors classes for the highest A-plus.

Jackson Browne went there. So did All-Star major league catcher Gary Carter. Its reputation stretches across the Pacific Ocean, luring Korean immigrants in search of the best in American education, and to the elite Eastern colleges where graduates flock.

But lately the sparkling test scores at the suburban campus have been overshadowed by a string of grisly headlines: A would-be valedictorian of the Class of 1993 convicted in the brutal slaying of an honor student. A 1990 grad accused this month of murdering his parents and brother. The 1988 Teacher of the Year charged with killing her lover, and another longtime teacher pleading guilty to molesting students.

The former postal worker who terrorized the county with a spring, 1993, shooting rampage is a Sunny Hills alum too.

"Our school's awesome," said junior Susu Irie, laughing as he stood in the school courtyard one afternoon. "We have everything from murderers to geniuses here."

"Now that's diversity," chimed in senior Jason Fairchild.

At Sunny Hills--where scores of students sit with books open, pencils poised and calculators running during lunch--the peer pressure is not to do drugs or join gangs. It's to earn straight A's, rack up extracurriculars and break 1350 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test in the never-ending struggle to get into the best colleges.

Three-quarters of the graduates go straight to four-year universities. Of 399 seniors last year, 54 finished with a grade point average above 4.0; there were six valedictorians because that's how many students finished four years with nothing but A's in this school that is part of the Fullerton Union High School District.

"A lot of times, popularity is based on looks and stuff. Here, it's how much you're involved and your academics," said sophomore Brian Kim. "When everybody is overachieving and going for it, it kind of brings other people along. It's like a race--if everyone's going fast, you go fast."

Senior Esther Yoon added: "If I could sum up Sunny Hills in one word, it's 'hyper-competitive.' "

But students, parents and faculty say the competition is positive, pushing kids to their fullest potential. Fueling the emphasis on academics is the growing number of Asian families devoted to top-notch education who seek out the campus.

Founded in 1959, Sunny Hills was for decades a predominantly white school nestled in a neighborhood of upper-middle class, college-educated professionals. Now many of the homes, which range in price from $300,000 to $1 million, are bought mostly by Asian families attracted by the high school's record.

Koo Oh, a Fullerton dentist who heads the Korean American Assn. of Orange County, said many Koreans consider Sunny Hills "the best high school in California."

Some families even remain in Asia but send their children to live in Fullerton and attend Sunny Hills. Others from throughout Southern California borrow addresses from people who live in the school's attendance area to make their children eligible.

In 1985, the student body was 71.8% white and 17.9% Asian. Now it is 48.4% Asian and 39.4% white. Four years ago, there were no "limited English proficiency" students--now there are 163. The shift will likely continue: Asians are 45% of the Class of 1995, 51% of the Class of 1998.

"They have a mini-United Nations up here," said assistant principal Diane Hockersmith. "But when you get that many different ethnicities in a place, it takes a little to keep everybody happy and calmed down."

Many students said they have individual friends of varied races, but that cliques form along color lines. At break, lunch and after school, Koreans dominate the center of the quad, whites mingle on the fringes of the leafy courtyard and Latinos--8.5% of the student body--gather elsewhere on campus.

Koreans and whites park in different rows in the student lots. There is a Korean Family Support Group separate from the white-dominated Parent-Teacher-Student Assn.

In a school newspaper column last year, editor Jhoanna Infante complained that even at International Day, an event lauded for promoting cultural awareness, booths were segregated by race and adult volunteers gave free food to students of the same ethnicity.

"The Asians don't like the whites because they're all sports and the whites don't like the Asians because they're all academics and money," said senior Brian Ashton, who has a reputation on campus for mixing easily among Asian and white cliques.

There also are divisions among Koreans, who make up 27% of the students and 57% of the Asians.

Acculturated Korean-Americans tease "FOBs"--students who are "fresh off the boat"--and disdain the "gangsters"--Koreans who wear baggy pants, carry beepers and boast about their connections to crime.

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