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Not So Minor

Long Beach Wilson able to excel in several sports while putting a private-school emphasis on academics

November 03, 2002|Dan Arritt | Times Staff Writer

As the students filter single-file through the door of the main building, they flash school ID cards before a security guard, confirming they are entitled to leave campus for the day.

On a comfortable fall afternoon, they all meet the school-prescribed dress code: tan pants or tan skirts and cardinal red or white sweatshirts.

Back inside, the athletic facilities begin to bustle with afternoon activities.

At the indoor pool, surrounded by walls draped with one championship banner after another, the water churns as swim team members take their daily laps.

The floor of the freshly painted gymnasium fills with dozens of enthusiastic volleyball players, and the football team heads onto the field of the 5,000-seat stadium, ready to tackle another day of practice.

It's a setting that might be considered commonplace at any of the Southland's private high schools, but this is Long Beach Wilson, a public school of about 4,300 students located on the city's east side.

Wilson, like a lot of private schools, has made its name in athletics by succeeding in sports more commonly enjoyed on family vacations. This fall has been no exception.

The boys' water polo and girls' volleyball teams are favored to retain their Southern Section Division I titles this month, and the girls' golf team also sits atop The Times' top 10 rankings. The girls' cross-country team made its debut in the top 10 in October, giving Wilson a spot in four of the seven fall rankings.

"Wilson has always done well in the country club-type sports," said Jim Ferguson, the boys' and girls' golf coach. "We're fortunate in that we draw kids from some of the more affluent families in Long Beach."

Wilson has grown more attractive in recent years because it has begun mixing private school qualities with public school access.

Alli Dillon, a senior setter on the Bruins' volleyball team, attended private schools for nine years before enrolling at Wilson as a freshman. She was set to go to Lakewood St. Joseph, a private school, but at the last moment decided to follow her older brother to Wilson. She hasn't regretted her decision.

"Academics are just as high a priority [at Wilson], if not higher, than at a private school," she said. "The rules we have to follow give us a bigger reputation to live up to."

In February 1997, the board of education for the Long Beach Unified School District, in an effort to establish stronger standards for academic achievement and dress, approved the transformation of Wilson into Wilson Classical High School.

Wilson students are enrolled in seven classes a day -- one more than at most high schools -- and are required to take four years of a foreign language, as well as four years of science, math and English, three years of history and social science, two years of fine arts and one year of technology.

Students and their parents must sign a contract in which they agree to meet the school's attendance, conduct and homework requirements. Failure to comply may result in dismissal.

The program was phased in over four years, beginning in 1997 with the freshman class.

It isn't all work and no play at Wilson, where Rick Jones, the boys' athletic director the last 13 years, estimates that between half and three-quarters of the students participate in extracurricular activities.

Jones said turnouts in some sports have been staggering. About 70 athletes participate in the water polo program, between 120 and 140 tried out for soccer last winter and another 100 went out for baseball last spring.

"The kids who come here know about the school and are proud of the school," Wilson Principal Keith Hansen said. "They start to develop that winning attitude."

Jones, who began coaching water polo at Wilson in 1977, said a stable coaching staff is a key reason for the school's success in the so-called minor sports.

He said the school rarely has a coaching position open, and when it does, he fields dozens of applications.

Ferguson, who coached the Wilson boys' basketball team from 1977 to '92, has been at the school for 26 years. Klaus Barth, the boys' swimming coach, is in his 20th year at the school, and James Arquilla has spent 19 seasons coaching boys' cross-country.

Even Tony Martinho, in only his fourth season as boys' water polo coach, has a long relationship with the school. He played on the Bruins' first Southern Section championship team in 1981.

Wilson has only two varsity head coaches who are not teachers at the school.

"One of the things I truly believe has created a great deal of success," Jones said, "is that [nearly] all of the head coaches are educators."

Said volleyball player Dillon: "We have a lot of support among the administration and the teachers.

"When an article is in the paper, they talk about it in class and put it up in the rooms. They encourage us to get involved outside of the classroom."

Hansen said one of the biggest goals for Wilson's teachers and administrators is to ensure their athletes are qualified to play at the next level.

"When a student comes here, they're going to concentrate on being a scholarship athlete," Hansen said.

"There's nothing more discouraging than to see kids get accepted at a certain college and then don't play because of grades. We don't want to be in that boat."

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