More than a few Los Angeles high schools sit in gritty neighborhoods where students fear violence. The average class size districtwide is 38, and the kids frequently outnumber the textbooks.
A continent away, the Berkshire School rests amid 500 acres of rolling hills in rural western Massachusetts. In a typical class of 11 students, books are plentiful, weapons unheard of.
Transporting gifted minority students from here to there is Paul Scibetta's passion.
Since 1983 he has arranged for 50 young people to attend Eastern boarding schools, brokering scholarships often worth more than $80,000 each over four years. Even in his off hours as assistant principal at Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood--a job he loves but doesn't need because of a lucrative sideline as a home builder--Scibetta works the system to his students' advantage.
"Besides the education and the colleges they've gone on to, they've had incredible experiences," Scibetta says. "They've had opportunities above and beyond the classroom that they'll be able to use forever.
"At Berkshire School, one of our students was head of the campus radio station," he says. "One student went to his roommate's house in New Jersey over Thanksgiving. His roommate's father took him up in a private airplane and they did a tour of New York and New Jersey."
On a recent weekday afternoon, Scibetta sits in his office with two recruiters from Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, Mass., which last year provided five scholarships to his students. The men present Scibetta, a marathon runner, with a gift of a lightweight running jacket in a lightweight traveling bag.
In the lobby, 13 fidgety, pre-screened eighth- and ninth-graders have gathered in hopes of impressing the "bigwigs," who arrived wearing blue blazers, slacks and striped ties.
A less preppy Scibetta escorts the group to the school library, a churchlike sanctuary with an arched ceiling. For the next 90 minutes, he walks the room, passing information back-and-forth to recruiters and kids, while the one-on-one interviews take place.
That evening, he speaks to parents of the prospects at a reception in a Brentwood home.
Standing in front of a large fireplace of volcanic rock, he assures them that their children will be safe 3,000 miles away and that, despite the distance, families often emerge stronger from the separation.
Scibetta comes home to a 4,500-square-foot house that he shares with his wife, Aileen, and two sons. It's in Pacific Palisades, well above Sunset Boulevard at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains. Deer sometimes wander into the yard.
Before the recent real estate slump, houses in the neighborhood sold for $1.6 million, hardly the affordable zone for an assistant principal. But Scibetta has long banked on other income: He began investing in stocks at 18 and in real estate in his mid 20s. And for the last decade he has been a partner in a custom-home building business.
Five years ago, Scibetta took a sabbatical from a 20-year career in the Los Angeles Unified School District and became the general contractor on a small apartment building. He was thinking about leaving education for home building.
The new career never had a chance.
"I love children," he says. "I love helping them in any way I can. . . . I come to work (at the school) and really enjoy what I do. I have a lot of lawyer friends who make a lot more money and aren't satisfied."
Scibetta says he learned that he belongs in education: "I missed it dearly."
The decision doesn't surprise Richard Kirschner, a Westwood attorney who is Scibetta's neighbor and one of his two business partners.
"He made a lot more money than he ever made teaching but decided it wasn't satisfying," Kirschner says. "I kind of regard it as his pro bono work to the community."
Scibetta was an administrative dean at Mt. Vernon Junior High in Los Angeles in the early 1980s when he found scholarships for six minority students to private high schools Brentwood, Harvard and Westlake.
He heard through a cousin who had sought hockey scholarships for youngsters to Eastern boarding schools that the campuses were eager to expand minority enrollment.
"I realized this was a win-win situation," Scibetta says. "This was something the schools needed, and the kids needed these kinds of opportunities."
He developed relationships over the next decade with Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire and Berkshire, Governor Dummer, Phillips Andover and Middlesex, all in Massachusetts.
Each fall, Scibetta begins the application process by asking eighth- and ninth-grade teachers for recommendations, then pulls the students' complete records.
"It's amazing if you look at comments of elementary school teachers," he says. "They're the same comments junior high teachers will make. Kids that are leaders in first grade or athletes in second grade or artists in third grade--those traits continue."