A group of musicians is shooting the breeze at V.I.P. Records, a hangout for rappers across the street from Long Beach Polytechnic High School, when Poly's cross-country team runs by.
"You never would have seen that 20 years ago," says Kirk Jones, a former National Football League player who graduated from Poly in 1984.
The group at the record store is African American. Nearly all of the two dozen runners on the cross-country team are white. Jones points to the team with pride. He knows that 20 years ago, white athletes would have considered streets near the school too dangerous to train on.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, racial tensions threatened to rip Poly apart. Fistfights and rock and bottle throwing became all too common, and as many as 500 students fought in the school's quad on three successive days in 1972. That incident forced authorities to station a dozen police officers on the campus.
Until then, Poly had enjoyed a great reputation, graduating a long list of famous alums: tennis star Billie Jean King, USC football legend Morley Drury, mezzo soprano Marilyn Horne, singer Thelma Houston, Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill, band leader Spike Jones and pro football stars Gene Washington and Earl McCullouch.
But a generation ago white flight and Long Beach's changing demographics pushed the 103-year-old school to the edge of closure. Sitting in an ethnically mixed neighborhood plagued by drugs, gangs and prostitution, Poly seemed to have every reason to fail.
Instead, it is succeeding. Spectacularly.
The city rallied behind Poly, and has helped make it a shining example of how education can work in a tough inner-city high school in which 57% of students come from families on welfare.
The main problem earlier was racial tension rather than academic performance, said Long Beach Unified Supt. Carl Cohn, once a counselor at Poly. The clashes that once tarnished the school now seem like a distant memory.
Poly's best students have their pick of offers from prestigious universities. Its sports teams rack up championships in cross-country, track, football and basketball. Even some of its rappers have moved on to fame--and notoriety.
No other high school in California produces such a combination of high achievers in the classroom and on athletic fields, allowing Poly to live up to its motto: "Home of Scholars and Champions."
Poly ranks 19th among the nation's high schools in students qualifying to take Advanced Placement tests.
Sixty-six graduates were accepted at UCLA last year--more than from any other high school. Other graduates enrolled at Stanford, Harvard, MIT and more than three dozen top universities.
The success of Poly's athletic teams has been a constant through both the good times and the bad. It has sent 40 players to the National Football League, more than any other high school. Its cross-country team and boys and girls track teams captured state titles last year. Its football team--ranked second in the country last season by USA Today--and last year's basketball team won championships in the state's largest conference, the 508-school California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section.
"It's amazing how this school has endured over time as our flagship high school," Cohn said.
Long Beach Poly draws its students from a densely populated area near Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway, said to be home to 10,000 high school-age teenagers. The waiting list for admission is long. The pressure from frustrated parents is constant.
"It's outrageous that the school district can't find the money to make room for more students," said Suzanne Schirmer, the mother of two eighth-graders, as she left a crowded admissions office recently. "I just came from a roomful of parents who want to get their kids in Poly. They said it's hopeless. When we have kids packed in like this, I don't know how they can learn."
But they do.
Poly's success is a direct result of a community rolling up its sleeves, putting aside its fears and refusing to watch a proud, tradition-filled school die.
A key step in turning things around came in 1969 with the formation of the Poly Community Interracial Council, composed of parents, alumni, students and teachers.
In sessions with raw emotions careening off the walls, council members would "fuss and fight," but came up with innovative programs, said Mel Collins, Poly's co-principal for student services and security.
Some council members "were movers and shakers in the city of Long Beach who took Poly High School very personal," he said.
One of the group's most innovative ideas led to a human relations program--now more than 20 years old--known as "the Poly experience."
Groups of up to 130 10th-graders each year go to "Poly North," a YMCA campground in Big Bear, on three or four successive weekends to mix with students of different cultures.